The arena buzzed the minute he stepped onto the floor. He projected an image of greatness and lived up to it.
Card collectors rave about the 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie card as the icon of the hobby, but check the latest issue of Tuff Stuff magazine and see that Wilt's 1961-62 Fleer basketball card, his rookie card, has a book value of $1,225, more that Jordan's. There are, in fact, two Chamberlain cards in that set. An action card of him can be had for $375 - at least it could until Tuesday. The 1961-62 set was crude by today's standards, black-and-white photography and white board with colored tint blocks for the information.
I was a ninth-grader at Thomas Williams Junior High School in suburban Philadelphia when word spread that Overbrook High School would play a scrimmage against Cheltenham High in Elkins Park. A bunch of us headed over to Cheltenham's packed bandbox gym and got there in time to see this tall guy race onto the court in full uniform wearing a hat, scarf and sunglasses. I've never forgotten that image.
Poor Cheltenham had no chance, but who cared, we got to see Chamberlain.
Jim Leaming regularly reported the high school phenom's achievements on his nightly broadcast on WIP.
Wilt worked his share of major hobby shows, but he wasn't a great signer otherwise. A Chamberlain-signed 8-x-10 photo booked at about $80 until Tuesday, but expect that price to skyrocket. A signed basketball was recently valued at $225, but figure on that to jump as well.
Chamberlain had a very open and clear autograph. It was easy to read and so simple, some people figured it couldn't be real. For example, Philadelphia businessman Mooney Weiss had an autographed 76ers souvenir basketball from Wilt and could not find a buyer for it.
"People who didn't know Wilt's signature told me it was a fake," Mooney lamented. Eventually, he gave it to some kids who, of all things, played with it.
My stepfather and I liked go to Convention Hall and watch the wars between the Celtics and the Warriors. Bill Russell, an awesome presence himself, brought out the best in Wilt. The wars between the NBA's two premier big men are without comparison.
Wilt was strong as an ox, and one night, I watched him simply grab Tommy Heinsohn by the jersey and move him out of the way as he went in for one of his patented "Dipper Dunks." It was awesome, great theater and something you had to see to believe.
When Shaquille O'Neal burst onto the NBA scene, the manufacturers buried collectors in cards of the new sensation. It is safe to say more cards of current basketball "superstars" are printed annually than were produced of Chamberlain during his entire career.
The basketball card market was almost non-existent when Wilt lit up the scoreboards. After his two cards in 1961-62, there was none until 1969-70. In fact, there were no basketball cards at all until 1969-70, when he appeared as card No. 1 in the Topps set. The book value was $200 until two days ago.
Other Chamberlain cards worth collecting include his 1970-71 Topps ($90), his 1971-72 Topps ($45), his '73-74 Topps ($25), and his last regular-season card, the '74-75 Topps ($25).
There are new Chamberlain cards to collect this year, as Upper Deck has included him in its "Century Legends" set. Wilt appears as card No. 3 in the basic set (75 cents), No. 3 in the All-Century team insert set ($3), No. 4 in the Epic Milestones set ($3), No. 4 in the Generations set (which he shares with Shaquille O'Neal and books at $4), and the big-ticket item, a limited-run autographed card in the Epic Signatures set that books at $200.
There's another off-the-wall Chamberlain item out there. His aborted attempt at a singing career produced a 45-rpm record called "By The River," which is now in demand. Singing, it turned out, was something Wilt didn't do well, although I had a copy as a kid and I recall he had a pleasant voice, though he was no threat to Frank Sinatra. The record sold for about $100 at a recent auction.
A Chamberlain Philadelphia jersey, a red No. 13, recently failed to sell at an auction. There was some question as to what it was - game-worn, practice, something else? - and the owner set a pretty high minimum bid. The jersey was probably a practice shirt, because, as a student, its current owner used to hang around the Philadelphia Textile gym, where the Sixers often practiced. Chamberlain was a perfectionist and the young man shagged balls for Wilt long after the formal practice ended. One night, Wilt tossed his shirt to the young man and said, "Thanks, kid, for helping me out."
I'll bet it will sell now.
Bill Campbell, who broadcast many of Chamberlain's games, said the only unexpected thing Wilt ever did was to die.
I agree. Immortal athletes are supposed to live to be older than 63.
Chamberlain's name should be linked with Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali as among the greatest athletes of all time. Wilt was a Philadelphia treasure and the city loved him. We will not see his likes again.
* Ted Taylor has been a lifelong collector of baseball cards and sports memorabilia. He has run memorabilia shows in the area and written for various publications. Taylor is president of his own Abington, Pa., area public relations/marketing firm.
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