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Saturday, April 3, 2004

Mayer: Wilt’s final KU highlight was awe-inspiring return

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In about a 10-minute period here in 1998, Wilt Chamberlain shifted from a moment of fearful apprehension to what he emotionally described as "the greatest moment of my life." The scenario included the hanging of his No. 13 Kansas University basketball jersey in Allen Fieldhouse and his receiving a thunderous ovation from fans he had feared might be hostile and derisive.

This and other highlights of The Big Dipper's amazing life and times will be featured by CBS at 3:30 p.m. Sunday. It's a 90-minute feature, "Wilt Chamberlain: Larger Than Life." Entertainer Isaac Hayes will narrate. Bob Bodziner is the producer, and Steven Stern is the scriptwriter. It shapes up as a dandy centerpiece for the NCAA semifinals and finals.

Bodziner lined up countless interviews, photos, films, graphics and got great help from the likes of Bill Myers through the Kansas University Archives and the Spencer Research Library. But enough of the promo logistics. Watch and enjoy. Back to the lead-in.

It was Jan. 17, 1998. It was Uncle Dippy's first public return to Lawrence since he left after the 1958 season to become, for one season, a Harlem Globetrotter. Wilt departed KU before his senior year for money, to escape the clusters of four and five defenders, to escape the absence of a shot clock and the notion that people considered him a villain for not bringing Kansas the NCAA title in 1957. He had been a heralded 7-1 sophomore who hubbed a Jayhawk team that was edged, 54-53 in triple-overtime, by unbeaten North Carolina. That stung him until the day he died, for it caused some to regard him as a talented loser who couldn't win the big ones. Further, KU didn't even win the Big Seven title in 1958. KU faltered while Wilt was ailing for three games and KSU made the NCAA Final Four. Dippy sensed animosity.

Wearing his Jayhawk letter jacket and perspiring heavily from the heat and worry, he told the adoring '98 crowd, in part, "A little over 40 years ago, I lost my toughest battle in sports in losing to the North Carolina Tar Heels. ... It was a devastating thing to me because I thought I let the University of Kansas down and my teammates down. But when I come back here today and realize not the simple loss of a game, but how many people have shown such appreciation and warmth (horrendous crowd roar, tears in a choked-up Wilt's eyes), I'm humbled and deeply honored. ... I'm a Jayhawk and I know now why there is so much tradition here and why so many wonderful things have come from here, and I am now very much a part of it by being there (on the fieldhouse south wall) and very proud of it. ... Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!"

KU was in the process of beating Kansas State, 69-62. Wilt had been sitting with chancellor Bob Hemenway and athletic director Bob Frederick. Just before halftime, the three of them headed down the hall toward the court, and I was lucky to be close enough to fall in.

"What's likely to happen out there?" Wilt asked. "Will they be cool, angry, happy ... what?"

"Uncle Dippy," I responded, using a nephew's pet nickname and my favorite, "you're going to get the greatest reception you've ever had. You don't realize how people around here have come to admire you, no matter what you might have thought."

"I hope you're right," he said with that trademark skepticism, developed over decades to avoid exploitation by hustlers. "I'm still a little worried."






"Silly to worry!" I think I said.

Truth is, Wilt didn't look too good for his first lengthy return since 1975. There was an ashen quality to his face and the pelvic tilt across his back indicated he couldn't go a lot longer without a hip replacement.

Off we went to the northwest tunnel where the Jayhawks enter and leave. Chamberlain no sooner came into view of the crowd than the "WILT! WILT! WILT!" chant began to build. He still said he was "scared as hell." The cascades of perspiration continued.

"You're in for a wonderful surprise," I said as he headed to center court for an intro by Max Falkenstien, who'd also worked with The Dipper as an announcer, and on his radio show, "Flip 'er With Dipper."

The dam of adulation broke, big-time, and it was all Max could do to get things in order for the presentation. It was a tremendous event, for everyone, with Wilt undergoing a catharsis of his fears and the crowd letting him feel its admiration.

As he returned to the tunnel to go back to his seat, Wilt commented: "This is the greatest moment of my life. I NEVER had any idea it would or could be like this. Nothing this wonderful has ever happened to me before, and won't ever again. What a fantastic thing Kansas has here."

Everyone went out of the way to heal and enhance the KU-Dippy relationship. He stayed some three hours to sign autographs for anyone interested. Most of the time you couldn't believe the length of the line. But he patiently and pleasantly persevered. It was a soft side of Wilt many had never seen.

There's a terribly sad footnote to all this, and that's of course the fact Wilt -- who still holds something like 50 NBA records -- was dead less than a year later because of a heart condition. Even sadder is that Lynn Kindred, a teammate of Chamberlain at KU, had become a major-league heart specialist who's done fine work at places such as Kansas City St. Luke's and the KU Medical Center.

Monte Johnson and late Bob Billings, also fellow Jayhawks with Dippy, had wanted the big guy to go see Kindred before he went back to California. Wilt, as usual, had "business to get done" and declined.

Maybe nothing could have been done and perhaps what happened was inevitable for a guy who'd pushed his body so hard for so long. But I sure would like to have seen Lynn Kindred and his team get Dippy in for a good checkup.

Wilt didn't come back before he died, but he made it quite obvious he considered it an honor to be recognized as a Jayhawk icon. He left $650,000 for various KU programs. Shaking that long-nagging fear, hearing that incredible crowd and feeling the appreciation from the KU family clearly allowed Dippy to die a lot more at peace than he once thought he might.

An apprehensive Wilt came back to the stable. He left deeply grateful for being treated as if he had never left -- under a cloud of doubt which he mostly created and maintained in his own tormented mind. It was a gentle, friendly closure that felt so good to so many, most importantly Uncle Dippy.

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