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 one 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 a 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. Chamberlain well knew the precedents of black athletes owning such places in New York. Back in the Twenties, Club Deluxe in Harlem briefly was owned by the prizefighter Jack Johnson, a controversial figure excoriated by the white press in the early part of the century for having twice married white women and later imprisoned for transporting a woman across state lines in violation of the Mann Act. Now Joe Louis and Ray Robinson lent their names and money to The Brown Bomber and Sugar Ray’s. 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, 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’ KC Jones, in with Bill Russell once, met James Brown, and was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Godfather of Soul’s ego.
Here, in Harlem, was the Wilt Chamberlain few white Americans knew: easing comfortably through what W.E.B. Du Bois once had called “the Black World Beyond the Veil.” Here was the Apollo Theater and Showman’s Lounge, the Big Apple bar, The Harlem Moon, Lickity Split, and Roy Campanella’s liquor store. The neighborhood was thirty years past its heyday; no longer the hub of black intellectual and cultural life, Harlem had become riddled with crime, dope, and storefront vacancies, an urban despair and bleakness suffused with racial tension and frustration. Still, the Strip retained some of its old-time flair. In the neon flash and bustle, crowds moved from one nightclub to the next. At the Red Rooster, where Willie Mays had held sway during the early 1950s, you could still find Congressman Adam Clayton Powell surrounded by admirers. A club hopper could see comic Nipsy Russell at the Baby Grand on 125th Street, stop by Sugar Ray’s on 126th, and then walk six blocks over to Count Basie’s club. Next door to Count Basie’s on 132nd was Shalimar by Randolph, a nightclub that featured a late-night beauty salon. When Knicks first-year guard Sam Stith, a Harlem resident, came out to the Strip in 1962, he dressed to the nines and no one crowded him. A few years before, Stith had taken his girlfriend to Shalimar by Randolph at 11:00 one night to get her hair done. She finished at 3:00 a.m. While he waited, Stith saw a hustler, all primped up, enter and shout, “Suits!” The hustler looked at the Knicks guard. “What size?” he asked. Stith replied, “Forty-two.” The hustler put the same question to another man sitting nearby, then said, “I’ll be back in an hour.” Stith looked at his watch: 1:00 a.m. An hour passed, back came the hustler, suits in hand. Stith didn’t buy; the other guy did. Another hour later, Stith and his girlfriend headed to Wells Restaurant for the famous chicken and waffles, a perfect way to end the night, or start the morning.
In this animated environment, Big Wilt’s Smalls Paradise remained a bright light. So hot was the revelry at Smalls on Twist nights, local columnist Jesse H. Walker asked, “Will this thing never end?” In Harlem, Jackie Robinson co-hosted a cocktail party for New York’s Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller; Malcolm X, in his dark suit and shined black shoes, made his rounds through the streets surrounding the Nation of Islam’s Mosque Seven in Harlem (and periodically ridiculed the nonviolent movement, including sit-ins, saying, “Anybody can sit. An old woman can sit. A coward can sit. . . . It takes a man to stand.”); and Wilt Chamberlain moved through his own celebrated orbit. If Philadelphia was his workplace, Harlem was his living room. He gravitated to a black world shared with whites, not an exclusive world or an excluding one. Each night in the NBA, the Dipper played for white team owners and predominantly white crowds, but here, at Big Wilt’s Smalls Paradise, surrounded by icons of black life in the lingering glow of Harlem glamour, whites came to him – to his place.
The March 2 game in Hershey meant little to Chamberlain . . . except another Friday night away from Harlem. He had spent Thursday night, and the wee hours of Friday morning, doing what the Dipper often did, enjoying the spoils of his celebrity. He dropped off his date at her home in Queens at 6:00 a.m. and only then set his sights on Hershey. He would travel the 170 miles to Chocolate Town on his own.
Wilt Chamberlain had one incentive in Hershey. On another scoring rampage, he was closing in on 4,000 points for the 1961-62 season; no other NBA player had ever scored even 3,000 points. On the previous Sunday, the Dipper had torn into the Knicks for 67 points. Two days later, in St. Louis, he scored 65 in a victory over Bob Pettit’s Hawks. On Wednesday, he had annihilated the great rookie big man, Walt Bellamy, and the expansion Chicago Packers, scoring 61 on Bells and blocking 12 of his shots. In that game, the Dipper also made 13 of his 17 free throws, typically the Achilles heel of his game. Chamberlain, who loved statistics (especially his own), needed 237 more points over the remaining five games to reach the once-unthinkable 4,000.
On top of his statistical rampage, he was revolutionizing his sport stylistically much as Babe Ruth had revolutionized his in the 1920s. What the garrulous Ruth did with the home run, Chamberlain was doing with the Dipper Dunk. Slam dunks still were relatively rare. It’s not that NBA players were incapable of stuffing the ball through the basket; they simply didn’t do it. Basketball traditionalists believed dunks suggested poor sportsmanship or showboating. As the NBA’s second tallest player (Syracuse’s Swede Halbrook stood seven-foot-three), Chamberlain was beginning to break with tradition by dunking with some regularity. Even so, he remained more of a finesse player around the basket, with finger-rolls and put-backs. He dunked with real force only when the spirit, or perhaps an opponent’s well-placed elbow, moved him.
As Ruth, with his 54 home runs in 1920, had lifted baseball from the dead-ball era, so Chamberlain was lifting pro basketball into a new realm of scoring possibilities. At Madison Square Garden, the Dipper once proved like the gluttonous Ruth in another way, sending a ballboy to get him two hot dogs, and then eating them, while in uniform, on the bench, just before the game started. And like the Babe, the Dipper kept his eye on pretty women in the crowds. A married man, Ruth could be loud and coarse, once telling his teammates, “You should have seen this dame I was with last night. What a body. Not a blemish on it.” The bachelor Chamberlain was more careful about his liaisons in winter 1962. “The blonde sitting underneath the basket,” he whispered to a Warriors official sitting at the scorer’s table during a game. The Dipper raised a brow and whispered, “Get her number for me.”
Gary M. Pomerantz worked for nearly two decades as a journalist, first as a sportswriter for the Washington Post and then writing columns, editorials, and special projects for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He later served for two years as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at Emory University in Atlanta. He lives today in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and their three children.
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