Friends Stunned By Death

Posted: October 13, 1999

Vince Miller picked up the phone in his South Jersey home at roughly 5 p.m. yesterday.

On the line was Zelda Spoelstra, of the NBA office.

"She was very upset. Breaking down," Miller said. "She wanted to let me know that Wilt had died. She wanted to let me know special, before the word got out."

Pause.

"I won't forget that," he continued. "That was so much better than getting it straight from TV."

If anyone deserved to hear about Wilt Chamberlain's death before the masses, it was Vince Miller. Chamberlain, still considered by some to be basketball's best-ever player, and Miller, the former Frankford High coach, went back to the mid-1940s.

They met in third grade at the long-defunct Brooks Elementary, 57th and Haverford. They remained classmates through Shoemaker Junior High, 53rd and Media, and Overbrook High (class of 1955), 59th and Lancaster. They stayed tight thereafter.

Miller helped convince Wilt, long resistant, to return to Philadelphia on March 18, 1991, so his No. 13 76ers jersey could be hoisted to the Spectrum rafters.

Earlier that day, Miller, a forward in his playing days, presented Wilt with an Overbrook letterman's jacket during an assembly in which Wilt was inducted into Overbrook's athletic Hall of Fame. Wilt later wore the jacket - size 52, with four inches added to the sleeves - in numerous TV interviews.

In 1996, when Wilt celebrated his 60th birthday, he did so in a bash-for-the-ages, packed with basketball luminaries, at Miller's home.

"It's so hard to put into words . . . " Miller said, haltingly. "Wilt has been my best friend for over 50 years. How many people can say that? That they've had a best friend for over 50 years?"

Gloria Miller said early last evening her husband's emotions were going up and down nonstop.

"When he hears from one of his old teammates," she said, "that's when he gets upset."

Ah, the old teammates. From '53 to '55, Wilt paced 'Brook to three consecutive Public League championships, city title victories in '54 and '55 and 56 wins in 59 games total (not counting two triumphs over the alumni).

In Cambridge, Mass., ballhandler Marty Hughes received word of Wilt's death at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he works as a project technician.

In Overbrook Park, near City and Belmont, forward Jimmy Sadler heard the news from his son. Sadler's wife knew, but had not decided how to tell him.

As Hughes spoke about Wilt, he looked at walls in his office.

"Lots of great pictures," he said, sighing. "All different stages of our lives. My favorite, I guess, is the most recent."

It was snapped in May, when Wilt traveled to Boston to watch Bill Russell have his number re-retired by the Celtics.

"Russell's in the middle," Hughes said. "Wilt's on one side, I'm on the other. We were kidding with Russell about how we did things in Philly. How we did 'em better in Philly. Wilt has just passed me the ball in front of Russell. I'm getting ready to catch it."

Hughes said he spoke with Wilt just Saturday. Their conversation was long and had a this-has-been-our-lives tone.

"That struck me when I found out he passed," Hughes said, quietly.

They talked about Wilt's need for hip-replacement surgery.

"I had it done last August - for the fifth time total on the two of them; I've got a sixth coming up - and Wilt was supposed to get it done the next day," Hughes said. "I was still kidding him about how he chickened out."

They talked about ESPN's list of the century's 100 greatest athletes.

"We discussed the possibility of him being in the Top 10," Hughes said. "Nah, he didn't say where he thought he'd finish. He did say he'd had enough confidence to know he'd finish above Russell [No. 18]. For me, he's No. 1. I don't care about Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali or any of them. Wilt's No. 1. Always has been."

Sadler said he spoke with Wilt perhaps a month ago.

"Maybe 45 minutes. Maybe an hour," he said. "It was nice."

He preferred, however, to discuss the visit he made two years ago to Wilt's mansion in Bel-Air, Calif.

"It was the first time I was ever there," Sadler said. "I was out there on business [he works for Seagram's] and took a chance and called. He said to come right over. He was so gracious, so excited to see me.

"That mansion. What a place. Up on a cliff. Looking out to scenery you wouldn't believe. I was taking pictures everywhere. He gave me the whole tour. The bedroom - so big. The giant-sized walk-in closet. The pool. You enter it inside the house and then swim outside. Wilt's sister, Barbara, took a picture of us. I had it blown up and I put it in my trophy room."

When Vince Miller moved from North Philadelphia to 54th and Girard and walked into a third-grade class at Brooks Elementary, he was immediately befriended by Chamberlain.

"Who knows why?" he said. "Maybe 'cause I was tall, too. Not like him, of course, but the second tallest. It was like he took me under his wing."

That feeling persisted.

"There's one thing I've never forgotten, and it dates from our time at Shoemaker," Miller said. "Wilt lived near 60th and Callowhill [at 401 N. Salford]. Every day, we'd leave Shoemaker and Wilt would walk me home to 54th and Girard. It was out of his way. But every day, he did it."

Miller again had trouble talking.

"Best friends, man. Even back then, we were best friends."

Send e-mail to silaryt@phillynews.com

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