Line of Wilt Chamberlain apparel aims to cash in on his outsize legend

James Swift displays the Wilt Chamberlain T-shirt that he developed. DAVID M WARREN / Staff
James Swift displays the Wilt Chamberlain T-shirt that he developed. DAVID M WARREN / Staff
Posted: January 24, 2013

It's an especially inspired dream for such an uninspired photo.

The photograph of Wilt Chamberlain clutching a plain piece of paper on which "100" had been hurriedly scrawled, minutes after he'd reached that unimaginable point total in an NBA game, is at the heart of a 44-year-old Roslyn man's ambition.

James Swift, the owner of an athletic apparel company, Swift Flight, hopes to make Chamberlain's legend as famous as Babe Ruth's, his face as familiar as Tiger Woods', his commercial appeal as powerful as Michael Jordan's.

"Why not?" Swift asked. "Wilt was the greatest basketball player who ever lived. And I'm not being biased when I say that."

Even if he were, it would be understandable.

That's because last year, not long before the 50th anniversary of the night Chamberlain's unprecedented offensive outburst prompted the postgame pose, Swift acquired from the legend's family the rights to license his name, statistics, signature, and image.

"I went to Tee Parham, one of the guys still around who played with and knew him, and asked him if anyone had ever done anything with Wilt involving clothing," Swift said. "And he said no one had."

Swift said the merchandise appeals to those "who wear, endorse, and collect" sports apparel. But he said Chamberlain-themed hats, T-shirts, and jackets appeal to a broader market as well.

"He's a national icon," Swift said of Chamberlain. "Fifty years is a long time for a record to stand. But I think we're going to go another 50 years. Nobody's going to score 100 points again. That's why I think there's a market for this stuff."

When it comes to sports apparel, there's always room for more. Like Chamberlain's statistics did, the numbers keep ballooning. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, Americans spent more than $29.6 billion on sports apparel in 2010.

Hats bearing Chamberlain's signature and the photograph from March 2, 1962, were among the first products Swift produced. After speaking at the superstar center's alma mater, Overbrook High, on the 50th anniversary of the 100-point-game, he handed out 150 to the school's best students and athletes.

"Everyone who saw them really liked them," he said. "It's been that way with all the stuff."

But Chamberlain retired from the NBA in 1973 and died in 1999. Few under the age of 50 - Swift included - ever saw him play.

"I think the young people know him a lot better now," Swift said. "There was so much made about the anniversary [last March] on ESPN, on the local news, so many articles written about him. I think the kids really got their heads around who he was and what he did.

"I never saw him play. But I've been educated about him. I've seen lots of clips, and I've heard lots of people, including NBA stars, talk about him."

A onetime high school athlete whose playing days were cut short by an automobile accident, Swift started a sneaker company in 2001. Two years later, he devised a water bottle that resembled a sneaker, a product that soon was appearing on NBA benches and in the nation's largest sports retail stores.

"That's how this business is," Swift said. "It's a matter of trying to find the right niche."

These days, Swift's group includes local sports businessman Jeremy Treatman, and they are represented by local lawyer Brian Blatstein.

The Chamberlain merchandise - mostly T-shirts and jackets - is being sold in Philadelphia at Pro League Authentics, just off the corner of 13th and Walnut, and online at www.proleagueauthentics.com.

Since Chamberlain also played basketball at the University of Kansas, Swift and Pro League Authentics are providing the school with Chamberlain merchandise linked to that college team.

"It's selling great," said Ray Jannelli, the president of Pro League Authentics. "Wilt is very big in Philly. We have an Overbrook High School jacket with Wilt's No. 5 on it, and we sold out over the holidays."

And if the right NBA player or celebrity ever shows up on ESPN wearing Wilt apparel, who knows? There soon could be an imposing financial number to add to the Hall of Famer's statistical resumé.

"That would be wonderful," Swift said. "It could happen. Who knows? With this, I really believe the sky's the limit."


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

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