This past Wednesday, March 2, marked the 55th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain’s remarkable 100 point game, an NBA record that may never be broken. In 1990 I had the good fortune of befriending Wilt as a tennis partner. He was opinionated, intelligent, competitive and charming. He was also one of the finest athletes in the world.
During college at Kansas, Wilt, a slender 225 pounds and remarkably limber, competed in the decathlon with astonishing results. Wilt ran the 100-yard dash in 10.9; the 440 in 48.8; the 880 in 158.6; he high jumped 6’6”, long jumped 22’8”; shot put 56′; had a 36” vertical jump; and a 50’+ triple jump. And later in life he benched pressed 500 lbs!
We met because Wilt was dating a woman in my building whom I knew in passing and who was extremely attractive. She was also rather petite at about 5’5” and 120 lbs. Wilt weighed over 300 lbs, but, since this is a family paper, I won’t elaborate further other than to mention his autobiography “View From Above,” and the number 20,000. (Google: “Wilt, 20,000” and you’ll know what I’m referring to.)
One day, Wilt wandered down to the Ocean View tennis courts as he was a huge tennis fan. (At 7’1”, 310, Wilt was a huge anything.) I was practicing my serve when Wilt asked if I wanted to play. You can’t possibly imagine how gigantic Wilt was until he stood next to you.
Once after we finished playing he insisted we shake hands at the net. It was a brilliantly sunny day and when I went to shake, he was so enormous, that I was suddenly in a complete shadow. (It felt like a solar eclipse but it was just Wilt.)
From that very first day, in addition to being so affable, Wilt was very competitive. After rallying for a while, he suggested we play a set. I won 6-1, after which Wilt insisted we play another. We wound up playing 5 sets. I won all 5 but the last was 6-3. As we left the court Wilt joked, “I was gaining on you.” Except I think he meant it.
I was at the courts the next day when Wilt showed up barefoot, carrying his shoes, like a kid. He never won a set off me but he always thought he was gaining. “I’m slowly figuring you out,” he joked. I kidded back, “The operative word is slowly.”
We played so often that a friend who owned a very successful restaurant on Main Street approached me with an offer. If I would bring Wilt to the restaurant for lunch or dinner, our meals, even our bar bill, would be comped. Apparently, just Wilt’s presence would be great for business.
I don’t know why but having an open tab at a classy restaurant has always been a dream of mine for some reason. Go figure. Anyway, after tennis one afternoon Wilt suggested we get lunch. I told him of the offer but he declined. It was then I got an insight into the downside of being as famous and recognizable as Wilt. He explained how he could only go to places where management afforded him privacy. (Wilt had a t-shirt that read, “Don’t tell me the score, I’m taping” because strangers would just come up and ask him what he thought about that night’s Laker loss.)
Even as we’d play tennis, it wasn’t uncommon for people to start talking to Wilt, even asking for autographs. He was unfailingly congenial. As for our conversations, I was all ears when he mentioned Bill Russel and the Celtics, after all I had watched many of those moments. On the kidding side, he called me “Easy money,” because he thought I had the life of Riley, when in fact, of course, he did.
For example, one day he had to leave tennis early because he had a “job,” a Jockey shorts commercial for which he was getting $400,000. I joked, “Wilt, a job is driving a truck or digging ditches. Four-hundred grand for standing in your underwear isn’t a job, it’s winning the lottery.”
Unfortunately, Wilt broke up with his girlfriend and stopped coming to the courts. I’d see him occasionally at tennis tournaments at UCLA and Manhattan Beach. “Easy money,” he’d shout in that booming voice. I suggested we play tennis again, joking, “You never won a set but you were gaining on me.” He laughed heartily.
Then one day I shocked by the terrible news that Wilt had passed away. One of the greatest, most indestructible players in NBA history died of a heart attack. He was only 63, but what a life. On the anniversary of his 100 point game, I felt grateful I got to experience a glimpse of that life.
To see astonishing footage of Wilt’s athletic prowess in his youth, Google: “Wilt Chamberlain Dream Recruit.” Jack also writes ”Laughing Matters,” which appears every Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.