Wednesday, January 17, 2018

20 years later, Wilt Chamberlain’s return to Kansas still produces chills

The return of Wilt Chamberlain, center, in 1998 was judged the No.
3 most memorable moment in Allen Fieldhouse history by

The return of Wilt Chamberlain, center, in 1998 was judged the No. 3 most memorable moment in Allen Fieldhouse history by viewers.


Twenty years ago Wednesday, a giant returned to Allen Fieldhouse.

His name was Wilt Chamberlain. He, somehow, still managed to squeeze into his old letter jacket and he was in Lawrence for the first time in more than 20 years.

During a season in which the Kansas basketball program will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its 2008 national title and the 30th anniversary of its 1988 championship, it seemed wrong to let the 20-year anniversary of the return of one of the game's true giants pass without mention.

The story goes that bad feelings about the racism he encountered decades earlier, along with the severe disappointment and shame he felt over losing the 1957 national championship game in triple-overtime to North Carolina, kept Chamberlain from returning to the place at which he became a basketball legend.


Wilt Chamberlain talks about playing basketball at the University of Kansas during a news conference Friday, Jan. 16, 1998, in Lawrence, Kan. Chamberlain returns to Kansas for the retirement of his number during halftime of Saturday's game against Kansas State. Chamberlain played for Kansas in 1957 and 1958. He holds KU single game records for scoring, rebounding, field goals made and free throws made. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

But on Jan. 17, 1998, Chamberlain was back to officially be recognized by KU and see his No. 13 jersey raised into the rafters at Allen Fieldhouse.

No more than 18 words into his introduction of Chamberlain — or Wilt "The Stilt," as the basketball legend was affectionately known — longtime KU radio broadcaster Max Falkenstien was interrupted by a loud roar from the adoring crowd in attendance that night.

Chamberlain, however, was not nearly as lucky. He was only able to get out three words before being interrupted by a similar, but even louder and more deafening, roar.

Throughout the six-minute ceremony during halftime of a Kansas win over Kansas State, Chamberlain's eyes and face were filled with emotion. The first sign of tears came after Falkenstien read off Chamberlain's career averages — 29.9 points and 18.9 rebounds per game at Kansas. And when Chamberlain finally did speak, he cleared his throat often and spoke with an occasional tremble in his voice.

“It was a devastating thing for me, because I felt as though I let the University of Kansas down and my teammates down,” Chamberlain said of that loss to UNC. “But when I come back here today and realize that it was just the loss of a game, and how many people have shown me so much love and warmth, I've learned over the years that you must learn to take the bitter with the sweet. And how sweet this is right here. All right. I'm telling you now."

“I'm a Jayhawk,” Chamberlain continued. “I know now why there's so much tradition here and so many wonderful things have come from here, and I'm now very much a part of it and very proud of it. Rock Chalk Jayhawk.”

With that, another roar came from the 16,300-plus who were standing the entire time.

Hours before that now-famous speech, however, Chamberlain delivered a speech of a different kind — this one of the more informal variety and in the KU locker room.

Then-freshman center Eric Chenowith was lucky enough to be there. And on Wednesday, Chenowith relived the day with the Journal-World.

“It was the coolest thing,” the former KU center said via telephone from his work in California. “He came to the locker room and we had just under an hour with him, and we just hung out with him and talked with him. He was an open book and as friendly as could be. When the coaches left, that's when it really got fun. We were trying to find out what dorm room he lived in and one of us even asked him, 'So, 20,000, huh?'”

According to Chenowith, Chamberlain merely grinned and quietly confirmed the legendary tale about his sexual exploits.

Most of the locker room chatter that day, though, was about basketball. And Chenowith said he counts the experience as “one of the greatest memories of my basketball life.”

“The one thing I remember was Wilt Chamberlain was larger than life,” Chenowith said. “I mean, he just completely filled the room. He had this cowboy hat on and when he came in, I shook his hand and it was like shaking hands with his shoulder. He had such a firm handshake. I'm thinking about it now and I'm getting chills about it. It was just so cool to meet him. It was like meeting the president or something.”

Chenowith, a 7-footer himself, said he was tickled to death by the fact that Chamberlain not only still had his letter jacket, but also actually wore it.

“It still fit him. It was a little tight, but that was special,” Chenowith recalled.

Having grown up in Southern California and played at Kansas, Chenowith said he was always in awe about the legend of Chamberlain.

“The coaches always preached about the list of big guys at KU, and it didn't take long to realize you wanted to be a part of that,” Chenowith recalled of his own recruitment. “Knowing the mystique of Wilt, any big guy wants to follow in those footsteps, obviously. And I think mystique is the perfect word for him. I mean, he was Wilt.”

As for the lasting memory of that moment with his team in that locker room, Chenowith said for all of the laughs and interesting stories Chamberlain shared, one thing made the whole experience a bit overwhelming.

“He just kept saying, 'I love what you guys are doing. You guys are a great team, I'm rooting for you.' And we were looking around the room going, 'How cool is this?'” Chenowith recalled. “That was a hell of a year to come into the program. One hundred years of Kansas basketball. A Top 5 team. Meeting Wilt. I mean, wow.”


Brad Watson 4 years, 8 months ago

Matt....thanks for this should do an article on why Allen Field House was built

Suzi Marshall 4 years, 8 months ago

What an incredible person, player and memory.

Brett Gaul 4 years, 8 months ago

I was lucky enough to be there that day and man what a memory! So cool.

David Kelley-Wood 4 years, 8 months ago

I have one unforgettable memory of Wilt. It happened in the fall of 1987, when I was working in New York. I'd recruited a friend and coworker from Minnesota to come and join our operation there. He'd arrived, and I'd gone over to welcome him at his hotel in Midtown. Afterwards, as I was leaving, Wilt was just arriving, but he hadn't yet entered the lobby. I asked him for his autograph, and he told me he didn't do autographs. So, I asked "How about a handshake, one Jayhawk to another?" He gave me a big smile and an even bigger handshake. I thanked him and that was that. Still what an incredible thrill it was for me!

Michael Mitchell 4 years, 8 months ago

My Wilt story goes back to 1957. I was five years old and my nine year old brother somehow received a ticket to go see Wilt play in Allen Fieldhouse. I was jealous, but anxious to hear about "Wilt the Stilt". Sure enough, my brother comes home to report on the evening. He had nothing to say about the game other than, "Dad...he...he...he was a Giant!!!" Needless to say, I was hooked on the legend from that day forward. A few years later, I used to re-read the articles in our Colliers Encyclopedia that dealt with college national championship winners. I kept reading it over the years hoping that one day it would change and Wilt and the Jayhawks would have beaten North Carolina in that three overtime thriller. A hopeless romantic to the end.

Bob Thompson 4 years, 8 months ago

I was at the game, and I remember that Wilt stayed after the game at center court and signed autographs for anyone who wanted one. He was there for more that an hour and true to his word he signed autographs the whole time.

Harlan Hobbs 4 years, 8 months ago

Absolutely right, Bob. I was there also, but I chose not to stay for the autograph signing because I knew that the lines would be long. However, as we were leaving the Field House, I turned around and there he was right next to me. I was star struck (even at 49) and all I could say was "thanks for returning." He gave that big smile on his face and patted my shoulder. I felt like a groupie and told my wife that I might not wash my shoulder for a week. Her response, "You better unless you want to live on the porch for the next week!"

Brad Watson 4 years, 8 months ago

I just wanted to add a few things here that some people forgot and some didn't know about Wilt....When he was in the season he scored 100 points by himself in a an 80 game season...which is double what a college season is...he average 50 points a game and 25 rebounds...A GAME!!!!!!!for an entire season!. 50 Times 80 is 4000 points in one season of basketball..He never fouled out of a game inn his entire career...EVER! ...he never sat out...he played every minute of every game during his prime..There aare so many other incredible facts about this man its mind boggling...I was surfing around Youtube and saw ssome interviews and highlights that were jaw dropping ...he could palm a 16 pound bowling ball and hold it straight. out....Check it out..and check out Wikipedia for all his stats....incredible!.. Wilt Chamberlain is the greatest to ever play..PERIOD!

Dillon Davis 4 years, 8 months ago

I'd love to have a debate with anyone about how Wilt was better than MJ. Doesn't have the rings but he was just so good and so skilled. He was the OG Joe Embiid.

Richard Greenfield 4 years, 8 months ago

Always irks me a bit to see some sports writers and talking heads offer up their greatest top 5 players or starting 5 for an all time team and snub Wilt. He was in possession of the greatest offensive skills from the center position the basketball world has yet seen. Wilt Chamberlain was every bit as gifted as his advocates believed. He would rewrite the NBA record book many times over. He would become the greatest individual force in the sport's history. Not Jordan,not Bryant and not Bird or James.

From a individually talented,jaw dropping physically dominant against his peers aspect I don't think this can be reasonably challenged. I think he can be mentioned in the same breath as Ruth,Gretzky,Ali and Jim Brown in the pantheon of American sports immortals. And he played for KU,not UCLA,not Kentucky and most certainly not Cackalacky!

Titus Canby 4 years, 8 months ago

In addition to being the greatest basketball player of all time, Wilt was a heck of an all-around athlete. He was on the track team at KU, and did pretty well in the long jump and high jump. And didn't he launch a professional beach volleyball league after his NBA career?

Finally, my favorite Wilt quote. "Raining." I won't go into detail, but I think it's hilarious.

Alan Mills 4 years, 8 months ago

The photo here is one of my favorites for so many reasons. Wilt, with Max, is a photo of two KU legends. For so much of my life, Max and KU basketball were synonymous. Growing up I always heard that Wilt would never return to KU. When he did, it was a momentous occasion. Then there are my parents, both now deceased. My father is the man just above Baby J, with both of his arms raised (the first man you come to like that). My mother is sitting to his right. I know and remember the Jayhawk pride my parents felt, especially my father when Wilt returned! This photo used to be in the lobby of the Field House on the Wilt display. It has since been replaced. But, I have saved it over the years because of the memories it brings back! Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!

Doug Longstaff 4 years, 8 months ago

One thing about Wilt and that "The Stilt" nickname. He HATED it. He felt like it called attention to his size and not his ability.

The nickname he liked was "The Big Dipper," or "Dipper" or "Dippy." In "Wilt, 1962" by Pomerantz, the author describes the public address announcer screaming "Dipper Dunk, Chamberlain, GOOD!" over and over again during the 100-point game in Hershey.

Brad Watson 4 years, 8 months ago

In college they outlawed the dunk because of he developed the finger roll...which was poetry in motion...he was very coordinated...graceful. as he flowed around the court..he played every minute of every game...never came out...never benched..... and never fouled out in his whole career.....Thats amazing...just that one fact........but with him there are endless jaw droppers.....Michael Jordan scored over 50 points 34 times in his career...which is off the charts....Wilt scored over 50 points... 41 times in one season...which is......ill let all of you fill in the blank.....and then there were the women......ill leave it at that!

Marius Rowlanski 4 years, 8 months ago

Not to make too much of an issue here but the NCAA changed the rule on dunking because of Lew Alcindor (1967). Wilt Chamberlain left college basketball in '58.

They did change the rule on foul shooting because of Wilt.

Brad Watson 4 years, 8 months ago

Marius are correct...I got my facts wrong on this....Gosh...I hate it when I'm wrong....and I appreciate the correction so I won't continue to think uncle or someone told me that 50 years ago and I have always thought that...and maybe he told me it was Alcindor and for what ever reason it registered in my mind as Wilt...who mistake and thank you

Andy Godwin 4 years, 8 months ago

Unfortunately I was not alive when Wilt Chamberlain was in Lawrence, but followed his NBA career as a kid (no longer watch highly overpaid NBA players, since the college game played by relatively underpaid student-athletes is much more fun to follow). Wilt was always my favorite athlete and I too, not because I am a Jayhawk through and through, consider him the most dominant basketball player of all time. In today’s NBA game, they go on and on about someone who score 50 points or pulled down 20 rebounds in a game. As noted by Brad he averaged 50 and 25 for a season. If I am correct he also set a record for assist in a season when challenged that he could only score. He could set any record he wanted. The reason that “experts” leave him off the greatest of all times lists is that he was viewed as a selfish player who did not lead his team to championships. Nevertheless, he was by far, head and shoulders the most dominant athlete of his time - and arguably of all time.

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