Tuesday, October 12, 1999

Big Dipper will be missed by Kansas teammates


Joe Ruklick, a Philadelphia Warriors teammate of Wilt Chamberlain says the Big Dipper stood exactly "7-foot-1 and 1/8th."

Chamberlain, Kansas University's Basketball Hall of Famer known for his shiny scalp and deep goatee, also weighed about 280 pounds.

Quite a sight.

"He was a giant of a man. I looked at him as indestructable," Monte Johnson, a former KU teammate of Chamberlain and ex-KU athletics director, said Tuesday after learning of Chamberlain's death at the age of 63.

"Not that large people don't have health challenges, but he's one I bet would have beaten the odds. He was so powerful and had no vices. He was almost 'Mr. Clean.'''

Yet Chamberlain certainly did have some health problems.

"The last couple times I talked to him he had not sounded like his old self," said Bob Billings, a Lawrence businessman and former KU teammate of Chamberlain.

"He said he wasn't feeling well. He'd had some heart problems in the last couple years. And he had a little problem with his throat.

"It's possible his heart gave out. In fact, he was going to send some records to Dr. Lynn Kindred (a heart specialist in Kansas City and former teammate of Chamberlain) to have him look at some of his tests and X-rays. We were hoping Wilt would come in here to do a complete workout with Lynn."

Chamberlain, who had his jersey No. 13 retired at KU in January of 1998, last visited the area in June. He signed autographs for a fee in Kansas City, donating a large hunk of the proceeds to charity.

"We had dinner with Wilt. It might have been one of the most enjoyable three or four hours we could have spent with him," Johnson said. "Other than a slight limp because of a hip problem, he looked very healthy."

"He ate like a horse, enough for 3-4 people," Billings noted.

Still, Al Correll, a 60-year-old former KU player who was born and raised just three blocks from Chamberlain in Philadelphia, said he was concerned after seeing Chamberlain at KU in '98.

"I told people I thought it was the worst I'd seen him look physically in the face," Correll said. "He was sweating profusely and there were dark rings around his eyes.

"I knew about his heart problems. He had problems in high school because of his growth. I didn't think he'd live to be 90, but I didn't think he'd go this soon. There will never be another player like him in sports, and that is sad."

Chamberlain's feats are legendary, Correll said.

"The man never slept. He would drive from Los Angeles to Philadelphia without stopping. Then he would go out," Correll gushed. "He knew a little about everything. He could speak a little Dutch, German, Italian. He knew a little about philosophy, a little about medicine.

"The biggest thing with Wilt is he never wanted to be thought of as a goon. He was so big and strong but he wanted to be known as a well-rounded person. And he loved KU. The man kept his KU letter jacket in perfect condition for 40 years. That should tell you something right there."

Chamberlain was as muscular as they come -- at one point even boxing Muhammad Ali in an exhibition.

"I don't know of anyone who could compare to his overall strength, talent and agility," Johnson said.

"He was an awesome, awesome player and a super person," Billings said. "I think he's a person who should be remembered for having a leadership role in integration in this area in public facilities."

Dick Harp, Chamberlain's head coach from 1956-57 at KU, spoke of Chamberlain a year and a half ago. "Yes I think he was the greatest to play the game," said Harp, in failing health now. "He was a powerful player who did things that nobody did before and never will again. I believe there never was a question of that."

More memories and tidbits about KU's Wilt The Stilt:

From Bob Frederick, KU's athletics director: "It's a tremendous loss. It's a sad day for the University of Kansas, and basketball in general. I thought it was a really special occasion when he came back in the winter of '98."

From Jerry Waugh, Chamberlain's assistant coach at KU: "It is a sad disppointment to learn of Wilt's death. In light of the fact he was back here a year ago and looked to be healthy, this comes as a shocker.

"He was a remarkable athlete. In terms of today's athletes, he's still a remarkable athlete.

"He impacted the game so greatly teams began to hold the ball. They felt the only way they could beat us is hold the ball to the end and get a last-second shot. There was no time clock. I think John Wooden who coached Lew Alcindor (at UCLA) learned a great deal in the handling of Wilt -- that you'd have to force the play with full-court presses and things like that. Wilt was the first to completely dominate the game."

From KU senior Nick Bradford, who met with Chamberlain at No. 13's retirement ceremony: "It is a loss. It was an honor to meet him because of what he did at the University of Kansas and the NBA. Anytime we lose someone in the Kansas family it is difficult. We mourn for his family and recognize his accomplishments."

From KU coach Roy Williams, aware of Chamberlain's love of KU even before the retirement ceremony: "He called our secretary to ask about tickets to the Wooden Classic and started the conversation with 'Rock Chalk Jayhawk,''' Williams said before the retirement ceremony. "He's been a fan of what our club has done and a fan of Kansas basketball for sure."

From Jerry Colangelo, a former KU player and current CEO of the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks. He played against Chamberlain in a varsity-freshman game in the 50s:

"I intercepted a pass and was the only guy going in the other direction. I was considered fairly quick in those days. Wilt caught me. He pinned the ball against the backboard. I'll always remember that. It looked like a monster on top of you.

"Wilt was into weight training in track and basketball. He was way ahead of his time. He's one of the greatest players of all time. His numbers speak for themselves."

From Maurice King, former teammate of Chamberlain. He credits Chamberlain for helping end racial inequity in Lawrence. In the 50s blacks were forced to sit on certain sides of theatres and in the back of restaurants, King noted:

"No one in Lawrence was bold enough to bring it to his attention. He could sit where he wanted. When Wilt came here business owners wanted a piece of him. Sports became a big deal. His presence started that."

From former KU and UCLA coach Larry Brown. He recalls Chamberlain showing at Pauley Pavilion for a summertime pick-up game in the 1980s:

"Magic Johnson used to run the games, and he called a couple of chintzy fouls and a goaltending on Wilt. So Wilt said: 'There will be no more layups in this gym,' and he blocked every shot after that. That's the truth, I saw it. He didn't let one (of Johnson's) shots get to the rim.

"I don't think it's fair to compare players in different eras, but he was about as dominant as any one player could be in any sport. I looked at him like he was invincible."

From long-time KU broadcaster Max Falkenstien: "I remember him high jumping at the Kansas Relays without practicing. I remember in '52 at the University of Washington when 3,000 people came out to practice to see this big wonder from Kansas. I remember doing a radio show, 'Flippin' With the Dipper' with him. It didn't last long, but he enjoyed it.

"I remember the ISU game in Ames. Iowa State won 39-37 and they ran a box and one, except the box was on Wilt and the one was on the guy with the ball. I think that's when Wilt decided this wasn't much fun, and it was time to go play for the Globetrotters and make some money."

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