Sunday, January 18, 1998

Maurice King remembers


Nobody appreciates a super basketball player more than another great athlete whose ego isn't so frail as to prevent him from admiring such a colleague.

That's the way it is with Maurice King about Wilt Chamberlain. Both performed prominently on the Kansas court scene from 1954 through 1958 and were the first high-impact black players at KU.

King would readily vote for Chamberlain, honored by his alma mater this weekend, as the world's best basketball player to date. King also believes that if Wilt hadn't been so firmly locked into one sport, he could be in the books as the best all-around athlete we've ever seen.

Consider King a reliable source. He's a Kansas City, Mo., native who became a two-time All-Big Seven guard and played professionally with the Boston Celtics, Kansas City Steers, St. Louis Hawks and Chicago Zephyrs before and after two years of Army service.

The 6-2 King was a Kansas City, Kan., junior high counselor after leaving basketball in 1963, then joined Hallmark Cards in 1966. He retired from a top executive post in 1991. He and wife Jelena live in KC and have a son and two daughters.

Reece is now 63, Wilt 61. They were associates during Wilt's freshman and sophomore seasons and starred for the 1957 Jayhawk team that fell to North Carolina 54-53 in triple overtime in the NCAA title game.

King has long been active in worthwhile KU activities and was on the two athletic boards and screening committees which hired Larry Brown and Roy Williams as coaches. He's been to the big picnic and back a lot of times and, appropriately, was here for the Chamberlain ceremonies.

"I look at Wilt's status two ways," King said during a recent conversation. "One, I think Wilt Chamberlain could have been if not the greatest one of the greatest athletes we've ever seen. He could do so many things; because of his commitment to basketball -- and while he was at KU his schooling -- he couldn't diversify to prove just how phenomenal he was.

"It's hard to touch on all the things he was capable of doing. Most know about his track abilities (high jump, long jump, shot put, quarter-mile) but he probably could have been a great football player. He was incredible in volleyball. His versatility is hard for most to imagine.

"Wilt was already doing conditioning things when he came to KU (autumn, 1955) that we had not been allowed to do, things that now are routine training. Lifting weights . . . Wilt was doing that when we were being told if you lifted weights you'd lose your fine touch.

"You heard people talk about how 'skinny' Wilt was. He was the absolutely strongest man I ever met, and that was when he was just a kid of 18 or 19. I learned very quickly that power doesn't necessarily come with bulk. What an incredibly powerful man!"

What about the stall-ball Kansas opponents played, which figured in a frustrated Chamberlain's joining the Harlem Globetrotters for what would have been his KU senior season here?

"If they had had a 45-second clock in college then, there is no telling what kind of scoring records he might have established," King said. "But we ran up against teams that wanted to hold the ball and take one shot a half. That was not a very enjoyable season my senior year ('56-57). I enjoyed playing with Wilt and all the guys, but we all got sick of the way opponents kept coming up with weird ways to counter Wilt. It stifled the game of basketball the way I and the others had learned to play and enjoyed playing. Wilt wasn't the only one upset by those tactics."

Greatest player in history? . . . "Yes, I think Wilt demonstrated he could do anything," King continued. "At various times in the NBA he led in assists, scoring and rebounding. You'll never see another season where one player averages 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds. Probably never have another 100-point game, either. Had Wilt had the opportunity to play with teams like maybe the Celtics without Bill Russell he would have won more championships.

"As an individual there was nobody who could stop Chamberlain. Russell was smart and had a great team to help him; one-on-one, no contest," said King. "When I was playing with the Chicago Zephyrs and Wilt was with San Francisco, whenever Wilt got the ball in the pivot I doubled down to get the ball or interfere with his concentration. He still dominated with good passes, moves and awesome power. Michael Jordan is the closest thing to Chamberlain, but Wilt could handle anyone individually. People forget how he could run as well as jump. His strength and stamina were insurmountable."

"What a shame they didn't keep shot-blocks then," lamented King. "Wilt might still own the college record. I can remember games I got three or four layups off his blocks. I'd see a guy go to the hole and I'd be ready to run the other way for the ball after Wilt blocked him. Nobody could shoot over him, and he sent it back like a rocket."

"I think Wilt was as happy here as he would have been at any college," King said. "He might have been better off going pro right out of high school, which he could have done. We all were disappointed with the way other teams played us, then remember he was offered big, big money for one year. I think it was something like $80,000 or $90,000 and that was a lot of money in 1958.

"He's managed his resources well. He's a busy man. Consider how tough it is to be that big and that famous and have any privacy. You live in a glass cage. Wilt's dealt with that as well as anyone I know and he has a lot of deep, good feelings about KU.

"He started with a good nest egg, has been well-advised by guys like Lawrence's Bob Billings (ex-teammate, and Tommy Kearns, former North Carolina star and a successful investment broker). Wilt's a very bright and imaginative guy. I'll always be glad, personally, for the school and the state that he was here for three years. He helped set the stage for a lot of great things that have happened for KU and in basketball at all levels."

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