Saturday, November 13, 2004

Mayer: Latest biography about Chamberlain could be greatest


Don't bother looking for a better treatise about the complexities, mysteries and caprices of Wilt Chamberlain than a new book by Robert Cherry. You won't find one, now or ever.

Cherry's offering, "Wilt: Larger Than Life," is published by Triumph Books of Chicago. His research, extensive coverage, clear and concise narrative and obvious devotion to a labor of love will astound you. At least it did me, and I thought I knew a lot about the Big Dipper who spent three formative years at Kansas University.

Think you're conversant about Wilt and his impressive impact on events of the 20th Century, sports and otherwise? You ain't heard nothin' yet. Cherry originally planned to spend three years turning out this work and wound up needing five to capture all that's packed into the 390 pages of "the story." Wilt let people know a lot about himself, but always held something back. Cherry discovered a lot of the "unknown"; nobody ever will find it all.

Further, in tracking down so many details and comments about Chamberlain's basketball career, his relationships with fellow players and adversaries such as Bill Russell, Uncle Dippy's storied sexual gymnastics and even ventures into big-time politics, Bob Cherry created a tremendous history of the National Basketball Assn. Since the incomparable Wilt figured so prominently in making the league what it is, his life entwined many of the people who created the NBA, kept it from folding and, thanks to the Chamberlain and Russell legend, finally realized the treasure they had on their hands.

The age of desktop publishing has spawned a horrendous slew of "sports books," not all of them bad. But Cherry's "definitive Wilt Chamberlain biography," the publisher's words, is a hard back ($24.95) that many will want. The thing is loaded with wit, wisdom, comedy, tragedy, the whole schmeer, about sports AND life. The book is so jammed with cogent and enlightening comments and data that you want to keep going back, and may wind up highlighting a lot of the stuff for frequent reference.

Cherry was a starting guard on the 1960-61 Overbrook High basketball team. His older sister went to Overbrook with Dippy (who hated the label Wilt the Stilt), so from an early age Cherry was aware of the Philly Phenom though his personal idol was Elgin Baylor. Bob's been a newspaperman. Wilt led Overbrook to title after title before stunning the world by choosing to go to "little old Kansas" as a freshman in 1955-56.

Chamberlain admitted he came here planning to play under the legendary Phog Allen. He was upset, and nearly left, when Doc was forced to retire at age 70 after Wilt's freshman year. Dippy admired successor Dick Harp, and they had their tender moments. But Wilt made it clear he believed Phog would have led KU to that 1957 NCAA title that Kansas lost in triple overtime to North Carolina.

As a collegian as well as a professional in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the headstrong Dippy had his own agenda, often went his own way, and sometimes drove his own car to and from KU games while his teammates traveled by bus, train and such. While playing in Philly, he lived in New York City and commuted not only to games but practices. He got special treatment all the way, in fact demanded it. Yet he somehow could come across to people as the gentlest, most caring soul alive. Basic intelligence combined with street smarts oozed out of his ears.

He was a master at manipulation, considered himself the expert on everything, with an opinion to match. As for taking to coaching, he generally followed a pattern of what former KU assistant Jerry Waugh termed "polite disobedience" ... thanks, coach, but I'll still do it my way.

Wilt's deep and abiding curse was that he was considered a "loser" by so many. He never got over trying to show he was the best at anything he did. He often was, with his 7-foot-1 height, incredible strength, phenomenal athleticism and craftiness. When Kansas fell to UNC in 1957, Dippy (along with coach Harp) got the main blame even though Carolina had a better all-around team.

As a pro, Wilt is regarded by many as the greatest court presence ever seen. He still holds 50 records for scoring, rebounding, etc., and hubbed two of the greatest teams in NBA history -- the 1966-67 Sixers and the 1971-72 Lakers. He too often had a weak supporting cast. Meanwhile, Bill Russell, surrounded by Boston Celtics Hall of Famers, won 11 titles in 13 seasons, two of them as coach. These two had serious falling-outs but got together later as buddies.

As for the comment in a book of his own that he'd bedded 20,000 women, Wilt said that was an offhand remark that a publisher exploited. He did take a lot of women into bedrooms -- at home, on the road, foreign and domestic -- and had an unpublicized relationship with actress Kim Novak. Thing is, the guys he associated with never heard him brag and seldom saw him make a contact and act as a showoff. Pretty secretive swordsman.

As for his never marrying, most who knew him best said that for all his apparent extrovertism, he was a supershy person who could not commit to anyone because he felt he'd never find the kind of relationship his beloved parents did. Several women say he feared intimacy and was unable to combine friendship and sexuality. Further, he'd seen athlete friends get rolled by women, wives and otherwise, and wasn't about to lose his money, about which he was quite covetous, by that route.

No matter where he went, women threw themselves at him. He must not have turned away many.

Children? If he ever fathered any it never came out; no woman ever came forward and claimed paternity status. You'd think if there had been even one there would have been all kinds of hullabaloo.

Wilt made special pains to attend the services for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after King's slaying in 1968. He once supported Richard Nixon for the presidency and made a glitzy appearance at the Republican National Convention. Later, Dippy said he regretted that backing when Tricky Dick went so sour. In his time, the even the greatest athletes didn't get mega-million-dollar contracts, so Wilt worked hard to maintain his comfortable lifestyle and had a vast range of assets. He was able to leave $650,000 to KU as a result.

You try to capsulize Bob Cherry's "Wilt: Larger Than Life" and you go nutty in frustration. There is so much about so much of the man's amazing life as an athlete and controversial citizen. One page you love Dippy, the next you'd like to execute him.

This is a combination social study, athletic treatise and full-scope reporting job and I can't imagine that anyone interested in basketball, be it high school, college or pros, won't be enchanted.

Love him or hate him, Wilt was, indeed, larger than life. The fact he was 7-1, 300 pounds and an incomparable physical specimen is only a part of the sadly lonesome, almost-indescribable person he was before dying in 1999 at the age of only 63.

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