Annette John-Hall: Time to give Wilt his postal due

Wilt Chamberlain in 1962 with the 100-point sign. This is the picture his sister would most like to see on a stamp.
Wilt Chamberlain in 1962 with the 100-point sign. This is the picture his sister would most like to see on a stamp.
Posted: August 20, 2010

As hard as I try, I can't feel good about the Wilt Chamberlain mural I see as I drive to work each morning.

Such a sad sight for a great man.

There's Wilt, languishing on a nondescript wall at 13th and Vine - faded, obscure, all but forgotten. Not much of a tribute to a Philly homeboy who went on to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

Sure, I realize that the 7-foot-1 former Warrior and Sixer has been duly commemorated. There's a statue outside of the Wells Fargo Center, and a retired jersey in the rafters. A mosaic hangs in his honor at Overbrook High School, his alma mater. And, of course, he holds an esteemed place in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

Still, for the larger-than-life figure who left us too soon - Wilt was only 63 when he died of congestive heart failure in 1999 - it just feels like his legend has diminished a little.

But all of that may be about to change, if Donald Hunt's proposal for a Wilt Chamberlain commemorative stamp gets approved by the U.S. Postal Service.

Stamp campaign

For two years, Hunt, a longtime sportswriter for the Philadelphia Tribune, has collected petition signatures, written columns, and overseen a flourishing letter-writing campaign that has garnered support from thousands, including Golden State Warriors executive Al Attles, who was Wilt's teammate when the Warriors were in Philadelphia; Earl Lloyd, the first African American to play in the NBA; NBA Commissioner David Stern; and the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus.

For Selina Gross, Wilt's sister, a stamp would not only honor her younger brother but also would inspire a younger generation.

"It's good for the kids coming up to see someone like themselves who grew up in their same neighborhood," says Gross, 75, who lives in Philadelphia. "One way to learn history is to see it on a stamp. It would spur conversation."

"Who better than Wilt?" Hunt asks as he rattles off other athletes who have received the honor: Arthur Ashe, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Joe Louis, Jim Thorpe, Wilma Rudolph, Mickey Mantle.

"A stamp symbolizes greatness."

Few could argue that Wilt doesn't belong in that auspicious group. Sure, basketball aficionados know that he still holds NBA records in scoring and rebounding, but his longevity was just as impressive.

Wilt's star shined for a long, long time. And that excellence was honed right at 60th and Callowhill in West Philadelphia, where he grew up.

Versatile big man

"Wasn't no one around as big as him. But he was a graceful athlete. His coordination was great, and he could run the floor," says Jimmy Sadler, Wilt's friend and teammate at Overbrook High, which went 58-3 in the three years Wilt played there.

"He'd be elated to have his face on a stamp. He'd love it," Sadler says.

Yet getting approval for the stamp hasn't exactly been a slam dunk.

The Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee continues to have a Chamberlain stamp "under consideration," says David Failer, the Postal Service's executive director for stamp services. Failer says sometimes approval takes up to eight years, but there is hope: "Most subjects never make it to the 'under consideration' stage," he says.

Supporters haven't let up. On Saturday, which would have been Wilt's 74th birthday, the lighted scroll atop the Peco building will blaze the sky with a message: "Help NBA Legend Get a Stamp Visit www.phillytrib.com.";

Barbara Chamberlain Lewis has already decided on the stamp's image - the iconic photo of her brother holding the 100-point sign.

Not only would it recognize Wilt's 100-point performance against the New York Knicks in Hershey, Pa., she says, but it also would pay tribute to legendary Sixers statistician Harvey Pollack, who had the presence of mind to scribble "100" on a piece of paper to record the feat in 1962.

"I would be more excited for Harvey than I would for Dip," says Lewis, 72, referring to Wilt by his family nickname.

She still speaks to the 88-year-old Pollack via telephone from her home in Las Vegas. But she worries.

Sadly, Wilt's close friends and contemporaries are fewer and fewer. Vince Miller, Wilt's best friend and Overbrook teammate and longtime coach at Frankford High, died last year. Russell Carroll, another childhood friend, passed away in January.

It would be nice if Wilt's remaining friends and family could be around for the celebration.

"Because believe me," says Gross, "there will be a celebration."


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com. Read her work: http://go.philly.com/annette

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