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Thursday, October 14, 1999

Novotny remembers Chamberlain

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Out behind Carruth-O'Leary Hall, then a Kansas University dormitory, stood three of KU's most decorated athletes -- Bill Nieder, Al Oerter and Wilt Chamberlain.

It was an autumn night in 1956 and the trio had assembled to determine who could put a 16-pound shot the greatest distance.

"I bet a buck on Bill Nieder," said John Novotny, a Lawrence real estate agent who was a naive KU freshman from Claflin at the time. "That's all I had."

Why not Nieder? A Lawrence High product, Nieder had just earned a silver medal in the shot at the Olympic Games at Melbourne. At the same Games, Oerter had won the gold medal in the discus.

"Al was pretty good with the shot, too," Novotny said, "but I put my dollar on Bill Nieder."

Novotny didn't even consider betting on Chamberlain, a basketball player whose only experience in track and field was in the high jump, even though Chamberlain was the impetus for the three-man contest.

"Wilt liked to bet " He loved poker," said Novotny, who lived two doors from Wilt in Carruth-O'Leary that year.

"Wilt came in one night when Bill and Al were there eating at the training table," Novotny related, "and he started talking to them, and then he told them he could throw the shot farther than either one of them."

Moreover, Chamberlain bet he could beat both of them, and that sent Novotny and a handful of others to their rooms in search of spare loot.

"There we were on that grassy knoll," Novotny reflected. "Oerter threw first, then Bill Nieder threw one past his. Then it was Wilt's turn.

"He turned his back, bent over and intertwined his fingers with the shot in his hands and sling-shotted it over his head. It went about two feet farther than Nieder's throw."

No matter that throwing the shot in that manner is illegal in track and field. This wasn't a matter of esthetics. This was a bet.

"I lost my dollar," Novotny said. "I think Wilt must have made about nine bucks that night."

Chamberlain was also, Novotny discovered, a terrific ping-pong player.

"He and Ernie Shelby, one of the track guys, used to have the darnedest ping-pong games, and Wilt was good," Novotny related. "One night Shelby brought this world-class player from Thailand over to show up Wilt."

Guess who won.

"Wilt had trouble with the Thai's spinning shots for awhile," Novotny said, "but he caught on and whipped his butt."

As talented as Chamberlain was at seemingly everything he tried -- as larger-than-life as he appeared to his contemporaries -- he never paraded like a prince.

"Wilt was never aloof, or a prima donna," Novotny said. "He was one of the gang."

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