Philly's biggest sports enigma

On Nov. 24, 1960, Wilt Chamberlain pulled down 55 rebounds against Bill Russell and the world-champion Boston Celtics. It is a record that still stands. Like other Philly sports icons, Chamberlain was misunderstood by fans.
On Nov. 24, 1960, Wilt Chamberlain pulled down 55 rebounds against Bill Russell and the world-champion Boston Celtics. It is a record that still stands. Like other Philly sports icons, Chamberlain was misunderstood by fans. (Associated Press)
Posted: November 25, 2013

Like a Whac-A-Mole that emerges when and where we least expect, Donovan McNabb popped up in the headlines again last week after Shawn Andrews called him a bully.

For some, this rebuke by a teammate fit neatly into their anti-McNabb narrative. For others, it seemed like piling on, unnecessary roughness against the legacy of the greatest Eagles quarterback.

That argument won't get resolved. Philadelphians will never agree on McNabb because we'll never understand him.

This city produces inscrutable superstars as regularly as corrupt politicians. Like McNabb, so many of our best and most beloved athletes have been maddening, polarizing enigmas.

Allen Iverson and Dick Allen shared more than a name. Beneath their awesome abilities, there were dark mysteries we never fully glimpsed.

Randall Cunningham was, literally and figuratively, impossible to grasp.

Mike Schmidt was imprisoned by his insecurities, Steve Carlton by his eccentricities.

So where, dear Brutus, does the fault lie?

In ourselves?

Or in our stars?

Whatever the answer, when it comes to these Philadelphia riddles, the biggest - in every sense of the word - was Wilt Chamberlain.

The most dominant professional athlete ever, Chamberlain had a resumé that was as imposing as his physique:

In 1961-62, he averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds and more than 48 minutes a game. For seven straight seasons, he averaged better than 33 points and 22 rebounds. He never fouled out of an NBA game.

So numerous were his achievements that there's always something new to discover. Today, for example, marks the 53d anniversary of one of his most astounding but least-celebrated accomplishments.

On Nov. 24, 1960, Chamberlain collected 55 rebounds in a game. And he didn't do it against St. Leo's. The Warriors that night played the world-champion Boston Celtics and Chamberlain had to battle the second greatest rebounder of all time, Bill Russell, for every missed shot.

And yet (isn't there always an "and yet" with Philadelphia's heroes?) . . .

For all his athletic and personal assets, Chamberlain at times could be, as biographer Robert Cherry noted, "moody, petty, and obnoxious - a real pain in the ass."

All of which only added to his mysteriousness.

Tom Meschery recognized this in his old Warriors teammate. In his poem, "To Wilt Chamberlain," Meschery wrote, "Off the court/ He is an enigma/ Tropical and dense."

Part of the puzzle was his congenital inability to enjoy the moment, as if he suffered from sports ADD.

Though he would have described the trait as constant curiosity, Chamberlain grew bored easily.

Playing in his hometown with the Warriors and later the 76ers, he would frequently decide he needed to be elsewhere.

Ringing up astonishing scoring and rebounding numbers wasn't enough, so he decided to lead the league in assists.

Dominating basketball wasn't enough, so he frequently threatened to walk away and pursue some new sport. At various times, Chamberlain talked about becoming a decathlete, a high-jumper, a hurdler, a boxer, a volleyballer, a race-car driver, a horseman, an NFL wideout.

He had a knack for disappearing off the court, but occasionally, often at inopportune moments, he would vanish on the court too.

In 1968, when the Sixers lost to the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, Chamberlain took just two shots, a pair of follow-ups, in the second half.

Not long afterward, just a year removed from a 68-13 record and an NBA title, Chamberlain asked the 76ers to trade him.

Some of his behavior can be explained by his contrarian nature. Whenever the world thought it had him figured out, he delighted in confounding it again.

"You think I'm just a scorer, watch me pass the ball. You think I'm just a basketball player, watch me KO Ali. You think I'm a Democrat just because I'm black, watch me campaign for Nixon."

One of those moods hit him in 1965. At the height of his powers, possessed of the most recognizable name and face in basketball, he inexplicably savaged the game that fed him in two Sports Illustrated articles, "My Life in a Bush League."

In them, Chamberlain may also have inadvertently explained himself.

"When we get to . . . the end of the story, where they say, 'Can this poor monster from Philadelphia really find happiness?' " he wrote in the first, "you'll know how it feels to be Goliath. How it feels to be seven feet and one-sixteenth inches tall with no place to hide."

"Sometimes," he added in the second article, "I feel like a guy not exactly living - but being chased through life."

Wilt Chamberlain was physically and intellectually gifted. He could be charming, had many friends and many interests.

But he was still a freak.

He knew it and it stung.

Those 84-plus inches may be the most telling of all Chamberlain's impressive statistics.

His height scarred him early. Chamberlain never surrendered his bus or trolley seat to elderly women because, by standing, he would have invited the stares, the snickers, the insensitive comments.

"I didn't want to be embarrassed," he said.

That's what he appears to be in his fourth-grade class photo. In it, the girls are seated while the boys are lined up behind them. Chamberlain towers over the children like a church steeple.

One shudders to think of the teasing he took.

Later, strangers would stop him and ask to pose alongside him for a photo.

"It's too much, man," he wrote in 1965. "There are days when it all makes me pretty sad and lonely. I stand on the balcony of my New York apartment and stare down at all the normal cats."

From his first day on the court to his last, whatever he did, many attributed it to his size, not to any innate gift or hard-earned skill.

As a response, Chamberlain became determined to show and tell the world how good he was at things where size didn't matter.

His reclusiveness deepened in the years before his sudden death, at 63, in 1999.

"He had died alone," Cherry wrote, "just as, by his choice, he had been alone during much of his life."

Not surprisingly, given the breadth of his curiosity, Chamberlain had contemplated his death. We might not have understood him, but he surely knew himself.

He knew that, even in death, he would not be able to escape that which had always defined him.

"You know the undertaker will charge me for the two extra feet on the casket," he wrote, perhaps only half in jest, in 1991's A View From Above. "He'll make me buy two burial plots because one won't be long enough."


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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