WILT, 1962

Chapter 1: The Dipper in Harlem

There is a photograph of the Dipper with James Baldwin on a Harlem street corner, the big man in a slim suit and snap-brim fedora, tilting his frame toward the writer, seemingly half his size. If not classically handsome, Chamberlain’s face was arresting: a long, narrow brow over almond eyes lit by youth and restless ambition, high cheekbones and a cool jazzman’s trimmed mustache. Then, when he really wanted something (or someone), there came a starry smile and his deep baritone transformed to the smooth, soft patter of the FM radio deejay. It was Baldwin who in 1961, back in America after years of self-imposed exile in Europe, wrote words that defined his life’s direction, words that Chamberlain may have heard. Baldwin wrote, “I had said that I was going to be a writer, God, Satan, and Mississippi notwithstanding, and that color did not matter, and that I was going to be free. And, here I was, left with only myself to deal with. It was entirely up to me.”

Chamberlain, too, would create himself, would refuse to be defined by size or color or his sport. In 1962 the Dipper drove a white Cadillac convertible, but only until he could take delivery of a nobleman’s car, a Bentley, custom-made in England at a cost of nearly $30,000 (including tax and shipping), roughly six times the average yearly salary for an American worker. Wealthy after his season with the Globetrotters and three with the Warriors, he used his big money as a tool of self-creation. After buying his parents a house in west Philadelphia, he lavished upon himself twenty fine suits, thirteen pairs of stylish shoes, the Cadillac, and a chic, pricey, Oriental-motif apartment on Central Park West. It was a far cry from 401 Salford Street, where Chamberlain had been raised. With nine children, William and Olivia Chamberlain, a handyman and a domestic, at times had two, three or four kids in each bedroom; at five-thirty each morning they felt the trolleys rumble past their rented row house in ethnic, working-class west Philly.

The young Dipper came of age noticing little discrimination, though once, when he was about four, on a bus in Virginia bound for Philadelphia, his mother wouldn’t allow him to sit near the front. “No, mama, this seat right here is open,” the young Dipper protested, even as she tried to steer him toward the rear of the segregated bus. It prompted the white bus driver to intervene, “No, sonny, you go back there with your mother like a good little boy,” and he did, though uncertain as to why.

So valuable was Chamberlain’s name now, so incandescent his persona, that an historic Harlem nightclub, Smalls Paradise, let him buy in as part-owner and put his name first on the marquee in exchange for his presence. He loved Harlem, the neon, the ladies, James Brown, Etta James, Redd Foxx, a lush life with jazz the soundtrack. And when Wilton Norman Chamberlain moved through Big Wilt’s Smalls Paradise, there attached to him an aura suggesting he owned not only this place, but all of Harlem, perhaps all of New York. His presence in the club was signaled by the white Cadillac parked out front by one of the nightclub boys on the corner of 135th Street, while Chamberlain strode around the club’s dark interior greeting his guests, draping an arm around Tom (Satch) Sanders of the Boston Celtics, squeezing a shoulder, “Good to see you, Satch. Sit down, relax, and enjoy yourself.” Reminiscing years later, the Dipper would recall this as the greatest time in his life.

At Big Wilt’s Smalls Paradise, the bandleader King Curtis worked deep into the night, and the denizens turned up wearing sharkskin suits and memorable monikers: Big Pete, Little Pete, an intellectual straight shooter known as Knowledge, and, of course, Charlie Polk, Wilt’s right-hand man, always at his side, Robin to his Batman. His name, called out so often, rolled off the Dipper’s tongue: Chollypolk. Small and thin as straw, Polk was, as one Harlem nightclub regular would say, “One of those types of guys who if he latched on to you, he didn’t let go.” Whatever the Dipper wanted – his shirts picked up at the cleaners, his friend’s wife picked up at the bus stop and taken shopping — Chollypolk got it done. When a beautiful woman at Smalls caught the Dipper’s eye, Chollypolk became his emissary, quietly letting the woman know of his boss’s interest and gauging her availability. He loved being on stage at the club and though he couldn’t sing or dance and he stuttered slightly, he was a riotous emcee. If you put a microphone in his hand, Chollypolk might never let go of it, and Redd Foxx would sit beside the stage, waiting, waiting to begin his gig.

Foxx, a bawdy redheaded comic, was a Harlem favorite. “Lincoln got his head on all the pennies. Roosevelt got his head on all the dimes,” Foxx would say. “I just want to get my hands on some.” In his first New York nightclub date in a decade, Foxx, a rising national star (to all but the censors), appeared at Smalls Paradise in December 1961. In smoky clubs, perspiring beneath the spotlight, Foxx would deliver his raunchy routines, unafraid of the social taboos of sex and race. In one, using his trademark off-color double entendres, he told of how everyone in his hometown had bought a jackass. “Even the little bitty kids, they had a ass of their own,” Foxx would say. “Preacher’s wife had the biggest ass in town. I know because I rode her big ass all the time.” And, Foxx said, her husband, the preacher, “didn’t have such a bad ass himself,” though when a fire broke out in the church’s back pew, “Reverend took a long running jump out the window to land on his ass. But somebody had stolen Ol’ Reverend’s ass and he wasn’t there. Reverend fell down into a deep hole in the ground and that’s where they found him.” Foxx gave a comic’s pause. “Just goes to show you, don’t it? Some folks don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground.”

Smalls Paradise was a legend that dated back to the Harlem Renaissance of the Twenties when its waiters danced or roller-skated across the room with service trays held high; the club was known then as The Hottest Spot in Harlem. Chamberlain had long wanted his own nightclub, an environment that had always drawn him as a stage for his fabulousness – why, even when he was just sixteen, his rival at West Philadelphia High, Ray Scott, had spotted him at a dance at the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge in Philadelphia and noticed how the Dipper flourished in such a setting, managing what all of the other boys couldn’t, a laid-back, Miles Davis, be-bop cool. It wasn’t so much the fast life that attracted the Dipper to buy a piece of Smalls in the spring of 1961. He rarely drank or smoked and he exercised every day, pushing his own physical limits. (Before one weekend trip to Atlantic City, his friend Cal Ramsey tried to pick up Chamberlain’s suitcase but found it too heavy. Ramsey looked inside and discovered why – the Dipper’s barbells.) What attracted Chamberlain to Smalls Paradise was the chance to explore new avenues of his own celebrity.

In calm moments, the Abyssinian Baptist Church crowd came for early Sunday dinners. But on most other nights, the nightclub was, like its part owner, full of the energy and exuberance of youth. “The Twist” by Philadelphia’s Chubby Checker was yet the rage, and the Tuesday night Twist contests packed the downstairs Wilmac Room. Limousines and taxis carrying big-money whites triple-parked out front. “Meeting again at Smalls Paradise as their fathers did before them, a brand new generation of monied fun-seeking whites is flocking happily to Harlem,” Ebony magazine noted. “And Wilt Chamberlain’s cash registers are running as hot as the gyrations on the floor.” It was a see-and-be-seen crowd, sophisticated, elite and integrated. Smiling for pictures for Ebony magazine on a Tuesday Twist night were comic Jack Carter, famed saxophonist Cannonball Adderly with actress Olga James, a Rockefeller and an Astor, Edward Smalls (the former owner who sold the club in 1955), the Greek ambassador to the United Nations, singer Lloyd Price and, of course, the Dipper himself.

His nightclub impressed other African-American players in the NBA, not only for its high style and glitz but because it suggested Chamberlain’s business acumen. They considered Big Wilt’s Smalls Paradise a must-stop along The Strip in Harlem along with Jocks and The Red Rooster. The Knicks’ Willie Naulls and Johnny Green were regulars at Smalls. The Celtics’ K.C. Jones, in with Bill Russell once, met James Brown, and was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Godfather of Soul’s ego.

Chapter 13: Stirrings

The Hershey Sports Arena had aged like Dorian Gray, not at all. Inside, it looked and felt as severe as 1936, the year of its birth. Here was the Hershey arena: half empty, cold and gray, cement barrel shell roof, cement floors, a metallic scoreboard at one end, up in Peanut Heaven, designed for hockey, reading Home, Visitor, Foul, Penalty. Beside it, a Canadian flag, limp. However stark, this was now the Zink’s stage, the showman sensing the curtain drawing back, rising to meet the moment, his persona unleashed on the public address system, no pretty waitresses to schmooze at courtside now, no Formost salamis to give away, his words on the p.a. echoing off so many empty wooden, hard-back, fold-down seats in the arena’s upper reaches.

It was 10:30 p.m. in Chocolate Town. The Hershey Department Store, open late on Fridays, was closed. At the Hershey Theater, “Sail A Crooked Ship” with Robert Wagner, Dolores Hart and Frankie Avalon was over, the folks gone home. Mister Hershey’s factory was yet alive and thrumming, the late-night workers moving through miles of aisles of chocolate vats and machinery. At 50 West Chocolate Avenue, Lucille Ryman had watched the president, in a nationwide television address from the Oval Office at 7:00 say that the nation would resume nuclear testing as a deterrent to Khrushchev’s missiles. “Were we to stand still while the Soviets surpassed us or even appeared to surpass us the Free World’s ability to deter, to survive and to respond to an all out attack would be seriously weakened,” John Kennedy said. Four of Lucille Ryman’s five kids were home, tucked in bed. She kept the front door unlocked until Kerry, her fourteen-year-old son, got back from the game. On the living room couch, she waited for him, reading, dozing.

Outside, only twenty degrees, wind chilled the streets of Hershey.

In Harrisburg, thirteen miles away, Reuel Ryman played the Hammond organ with the Charlie Morrison Trio at the 210 Club, a crowded downstairs place, thick with smoke, a favored spot for Pennsylvania legislators and conventioneers. A few blocks away, at the Hotel Penn Harris, lay Phil Jordon. The only other Knick who might’ve slowed the Dipper was in dire straits — hung over, the flu, vomiting. Eddie Donovan could’ve used Phil Jordon, who had played the Dipper nearly even in an earlier game, scoring thirty-three points to the Dipper’s thirty-four. Donovan could’ve used the entire New York City skyline – the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building (with little Maurice Podoloff, league president, rising to Wilt’s waist, on its eighty-second floor). In the fourth quarter, Donovan would use what he had, all of it. With Imhoff in foul trouble, Eddie Donovan had no player taller than the six-foot-eight Buckner. Naulls and Budd were six-foot-six, Green six-five, Guerin six-four, Butcher six-three, Butler six-two. If Donovan stood all seven players, one atop the next, he could build a wall forty-four feet, ten inches high, weighing more than 1,400 pounds. He then could raise it, like a prison wall, tall and turreted, around the Dipper. Only problem was, he could build no such wall; he could only order his undersized men to throw themselves against Chamberlain.

In New York City, at the sports desk of The Herald-Tribune, no one had penned the Knicks-Warriors game on the schedule. A wiseacre asked, “Hey, where are the Knicks tonight?” Sportswriter Jerry Izenberg, who often covered the team, said, “I don’t know. Want me to go look for them?”

Entering the fourth quarter, the Warriors led by nineteen points, 125-106, the final outcome all but sealed. Yet Chamberlain was on a scoring rampage. With sixty-nine points and twelve minutes yet to play, the Dipper stood ready to enter uncharted territory. This was not merely about a scoring record. He’d already exceeded Baylor’s old mark of seventy-one points twice this season, with seventy-three and seventy-eight. It was about pushing the limits of curiosity and imagination, a notion that energized the Dipper.

For the Knicks, it was a train wreck. But, in a more thrilling way, it was also akin to watching the Friendship VII, which only ten days before, with John Glenn aboard, had rocketed into space and orbited the earth at 28,000 kilometers per hour. Upon his return to earth, Glenn said, “I don’t know what you can say about a day when you see four beautiful sunsets.” As no other American had seen what Glenn had, no other player in NBA history had gone where the Dipper would go on this night. The fans and Warriors players shared Chamberlain’s passion for going into the unexplored, to see basketball’s equivalent of four sunsets. The possibility piqued Meschery’s curiosity, as it did to all the Warriors. They would have to subjugate themselves in the fourth quarter to become the Dipper’s partners in exploration. The Knicks didn’t know where this would end, though surely they didn’t like where it was heading.

Richie Guerin, the gladiator, grew angrier by the moment. Chamberlain’s rising total amounted to rubbing it in, an honor code broken. Guerin’s face became a mask of tension and fury. Eddie Donovan, with his wife, Marge, in the crowd, had to wonder: What is Frank McGuire thinking?

In a few minutes, all these colliding thoughts and emotions would intensify.

In the crowd, a few NFL players had stayed after the prelim to watch the main event. Clarence Peaks, Timmy Brown, and Sonny Jurgensen were enthralled. Peaks, who knew Chamberlain’s strength from watching him lift weights in his garage, now saw the Dipper overpower several Knicks defenders. Jurgensen, in near awe, marveled at Chamberlain’s fade-away shots. Through the Zink’s announcements, Jurgensen would track the rising point total. No awe for Timmy Brown. The way Brown figured, Wilt was a dominant force and he was in his own zone, getting the ball and taking it at inferior players. Besides, Timmy Brown never got too excited watching a game because he was used to being gotten excited about. The Colts’ Gino Marchetti told teammate Bill Pellington that he’d never before watched a player that big who was so agile and strong. “Usually tall guys are sort of clumsy,” Marchetti said. But, thirsty and thinking about beer, Marchetti and Pellington left the Hershey arena at the start of the fourth quarter and headed for Martini’s bar.>

Kerry Ryman and his buddies had dispersed inside the Hershey Sports Arena. Dave Damore had pulled off a miniature coup. Even before the game started, the Sandman sat on a bench at courtside next to folding chairs for Warriors players. A team manager questioned Damore. The Sandman said he’d been told that kids from the Community Club could sit there. He stayed and soon looked back to his buddies and motioned for them to join him. None did.

Referees must keep their thoughts to themselves during games. Pete D’Ambrosio had officiated many of Chamberlain’s games though never one like this. Once, after working a Warriors game in Hershey, D’Ambrosio and referee Earl Strom stopped at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant. Inside, were the Warriors. In the parking lot, Chamberlain saw D’Amrosio’s 1956 Plymouth station wagon. “Yo, Pete,” Wilt said, smiling broadly, “go get yourself a better car!” “If I had your money, Wilton,” he replied, “I’d have a better car.” D’Ambrosio liked Chamberlain. A good kid. Chamberlain had never caused him trouble on the court, not like Bill Russell, who sometimes muttered sarcastic jibes — nothing D’Ambrosio could whistle him for, but unsettling. Working this game on this night, D’Ambrosio watched Chamberlain’s physical superiority and thought, He’s just eating them up

As Chamberlain and the Warriors came out onto the floor for the fourth quarter, some fans moved closer to the court. Ushers did not try to stop them, for they, too, were caught up in the excitement. A basketball arena, like a courtroom, can become a universe unto itself, drama unfolding with its own distinctive characters and truths. As the outside world fell away, Bill Campbell leaned into his microphone and told his listeners, “This is the big fourth quarter and everybody’s thinking, ‘How many is Wilt gonna get?’”