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Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain
In 1997, Wilt Chamberlain (right) has a few words with a newer NBA celebrity, Michael Jordan.
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Bigger than life, Wilt became NBA's first celebrity athlete

By Fran Blinebury,
Posted Mar 1 2012 9:19AM

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Long before LeBron James and Dwight Howard were selling burgers and fries for McDonald's, there was Wilt.

Long before every on and off court shimmy and shake by Kobe Bryant or Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade was feverishly followed in the Twitter-verse, there was Wilt.

Long before Michael Jordan even fantasized of flying through cartoon skies and trading slam dunks with the likes of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, there was Wilt.

Wilt Chamberlain, though never a marketing giant in his time, was the NBA's first celebrity athlete, an outlandishly large, supremely gifted talent who made jaws drop for what he could do on the basketball floor and turned that into a larger-than life lifestyle that made him tower over American culture for most of his 63 years.

"Let's just say it. Everything you see and know about the NBA, all of the stars and celebrities and the contracts and the headlines might not have ever happened without him," said Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. "Wilt Chamberlain saved the NBA at a time when it was strictly a minor league affair and might have gone out of business. He made this league.

"He was a man who suddenly made people want to come out to a game just to see who he was and what he could do. Teams all around the league could sell him and the image that was around him and that was the driving force that put professional basketball into the mainstream.

"I know we had a lot of very good basketball players at that time in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But it was the image of this 7-footer and everything that he represented that got people to look at us differently."

Maybe even to look at all athletes differently. By the time a brash young boxer named Cassius Clay knocked out Sonny Liston and leaped before the TV cameras to proclaim his greatness, Chamberlain had already carved out a niche dominating the league and grabbing attention by threatening to retire from the NBA after one year because he was bored. He knew how to stoke the fires as a provocateur long before anyone ever imagined the Heatles.

Wilt then grew -- if not up from his 7 feet, -inch height -- into a famous figure, known as much for his swinging '60s bachelor lifestyle and seemingly insatiable appetite for the over-the-top aspects of the so-called good life. From his claims of having had sexual encounters with 20,000 women to his 7,158-foot, custom-built hilltop mansion in Bel-Air -- named Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) -- Chamberlain constantly found his way into headlines.

"Restaurants, airports, on the street, anywhere you went, Wilt was a phenomenon," said former teammate Wali Jones. "I've seen Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. I've seen what's gone on with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat. I'm telling you, the size of the media itself might have grown. But there is nothing in terms of the kind of attention and celebrity that they have over Wilt. Remember, there are tons of celebrity athletes today. When Wilt came into the league, he was the only one."

The NBA had a star attraction before when George Mikan played for the Minneapolis Lakers in the early 1950s. On one trip into New York, the marquee at Madison Square Garden actually read: "Geo Mikan vs. Knicks."

But at 6-foot-10, 245 pounds, Mikan was simply bigger, bulkier and dominant with his size in a game that had previously been ruled by small, quick players. He was bookish in appearance, wearing glasses on the court. Here was Chamberlain: tall, lean, black, oh-so-cool and ready to take what had been an earthbound game soaring into the stratosphere.

Wilt had been no stranger to fame before he entered the NBA, as feats of his size and basketball prowess grew from the time he set records at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia to the University of Kansas to his year of touring internationally with the Harlem Globetrotters. At age 12, Chamberlain made his national television debut on Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town." In 1950 he was a contestant on "What's My Line?" and in 1952 he appeared on "I've Got a Secret."

"Everything about Wilt was larger than life," said Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham, who was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers to become a teammate of Chamberlain's. "There I was, this young kid who had just come from college at North Carolina and I show up for my rookie training camp, all kind of wide-eyed for the experience.

"I remember standing outside the gym on the first day and here comes this Bentley with this big guy behind the wheel and all I could think was 'Oh, my goodness! This is Wilt's world.' "

One of Wilt's favorite parts of his world was Smalls Paradise, a historic New York nightclub in Harlem that allowed Chamberlain to become a part-owner. When Wilt bought in, the name was changed to Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise and he loved moving through the crowds and rubbing elbows with the likes of James Brown, Etta James and Redd Foxx, according to Gary Pomerantz in his book, "Wilt, 1962."

Smalls offered Chamberlain a chance to straddle the worlds of sports and jazz. He would play in heated competition on the court, then chill out with a well-chronicled laid-back image that impressed the public and his NBA peers. It also, according to Ebony magazine, raked in the money.

"It was a see-and-be-seen crowd, sophisticated, elite and integrated," Pomerantz wrote, attracting athletes, musicians, actors and politicians.

"Since he was living in New York, Wilt would give me a ride home to my parents' house in Brooklyn at lot," Cunningham said. "A few times I went with him to Smalls and you could tell from the minute he walked through the front door, Wilt was in his heaven. He loved the atmosphere. He loved the people. And he loved the idea that everybody knew that was his name outside on the sign."

He dated Hollywood actresses and loved to brag about it. He had a celebrated flirtation in 1971 with Muhammad Ali about signing to box for the heavyweight championship. He hung with A-list movie stars and was always reminded that they were the ones who were most impressed with him.

"When Wilt started up with Schwarzenegger on their movie (Conan the Destroyer, 1984), he showed up one day at the gym where Arnold was working out," said Al Attles, his teammate and closest NBA friend. "Arnold was always into letting everybody know how strong he was. So Wilt walks over to the weights that Arnold was lifting, picks them up, twirled them around and then just walks away laughing. I guess it was his way of saying that it might be Arnold's movie, but Wilt was the still the big man."

He was big. He was enormous. He was huge. In life, reputation, in image, he was simply gigantic.

"We had always heard about names like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehig, but they were from a different time," said Sonny Hill, currently an executive adviser with the Philadelphia 76ers a close friend since boyhood. "Joe DiMaggio didn't like the spotlight. Jackie Robinson had to do his talking with his actions on and off the field.

"But then here comes this young man who was 7 feet tall and could do things that nobody even imagined were possible. He wrote his own rules. He made his own life and he really did change the way a lot of people watched games and thought about sports.

"Everybody knew him or at least everybody heard of him. Just stop and think for a minute. You didn't need a game program to pick him out. You didn't have to look for uniform number. He stood out because he stood above everybody. And that's the image that lasts.

"There are a lot of athletes who have instant name recognition with the public and cross all boundaries these days. But he was the first and you never even had to use his last name.

"Wilt. That was enough."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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