Larger than life
Compared to big league baseball and football, the National Basketball Association that Wilt joined in 1959 was a small-time operation with eight teams – Boston, Philadelphia, Syracuse, and New York in the Eastern Division; St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Cincinnati in the West. Eight guys with cigars in a phone booth, one wag dubbed it.
“In the fifties, a lot of guys were military veterans like myself,” recalled Alex Hannum. “And to be honest, we drank beer – a lot of beer. If it wasn’t for a hot shower and a cold beer, we never would have played pro ball.” Roland Lazenby captured the feel of the league’s early years when he dedicated his book on the NBA Finals “to all the guys who played when the lights weren’t so bright and the money wasn’t so good.”
Whereas today’s NBA teams, with few exceptions, are owned by multimillion-dollar publicly traded corporations (or individual multimillionaires), the teams in the early days of the league were privately owned and barely profitable. Many failed, but all were run by basketball men: Ben Kerner in St. Louis, Walter Brown in Boston, Ned Irish in New York, Fred Zollner in Detroit (whose team took its name from the automobile pistons his company manufactured), Danny Biasone in Syracuse (immortalized in basketball history when, at his suggestion in 1954, the league introduced the 24-second clock), and, in Philadelphia, Eddie Gottlieb. Unlike Brown – who owned Boston Garden, the Celtics, and a professional hockey team – Gottlieb’s income was derived solely from his basketball team, which is why he counted the sweat socks as well as the tickets.
Gottlieb grew up in South Philadelphia, the son of Jewish immigrants from Kiev, Ukraine. He attended South Philadelphia High School and had brief careers as a junior high physical education teacher and part owner of a sporting-goods store. Then he helped organize, played for, coached, and, eventually, owned a team that played under the auspices, at one time, of the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association – and was better known to the world of basketball in the twenties and thirties by its acronym, the SPHAs. Originally an amateur team, the SPHAs barnstormed the country and were one of the premier professional basketball teams of their era, winning seven American Basketball League championships (and finishing as runners-up twice) between 1933 and 1946.
Gottlieb eventually bought the controlling ownership of the Philadelphia Warriors in 1952 and, in doing so, became one of the most powerful and imaginative forces in the fledgling National Basketball Association. He was aptly nicknamed “the Mogul” and “Mr. Basketball.”
Harry Litwack, Temple University’s longtime coach and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, said of his dear friend and fellow Hall enshrinee: “Eddie Gottlieb was about as important to the game of basketball as the basketball.”
Leonard Koppett, who covered the NBA for the New York Post and The New York Times and is the author of the basketball history 24 Seconds to Shoot, wrote: “Gottlieb was the brains of the league. Maurice Podoloff was the first commissioner, but to his dying days, Podoloff never understood basketball. . . . When anyone inside the league or outside had a question, they went to Gotty.”
“Eddie was a fabulous guy,” recalled Alan Levitt, who became the Warriors’ accountant in 1952:
He was honest and his word was his bond. He was faster with numbers than I was – and I was fast with numbers. When Eddie owned the Warriors, our entire staff was Mike Iannarella, the ticket man; Dave Zinkoff, the announcer, who was part-time; Harvey Pollack [who kept stats and did publicity]; and myself. Can you imagine running a professional basketball team with five people? But we did it and we did it well.
If one approached Gottlieb and asked him how he was doing, his likely response would be, “What’s it to you how I’m doin’?” He was a gruff but good-hearted guy, recalled Hank Greenwald, then an NBA announcer but better known for his career with the San Francisco Giants.
Paul Arizin, one of his star players, remembers Gotty’s negotiating style:
You walked into Eddie’s office, and he would say, “This is what you did good [last season], this is how many people we drew, and this is what I can afford to pay you. If you don’t want it, good luck in getting a job.”
Neil Johnston, then one of the league’s stars, once asked Eddie for a raise from $6,000 to $15,000. Eddie reached into his pocket and handed Johnston the keys to his office and said, “Here, if I give you that kind of money, you’ll own the team.”
“When the players came in to negotiate with Gotty, they trembled because he was tough as nails,” the accountant Levitt recalled. “However, when it came to Wilt, the sad-eyed 5'7" Gottlieb would say, ‘OK, Wilt, what do you want?’ Wilt’s reply was, ‘I’m listening, Gotty.’ Wilt was different – he knew his value.”
When Wilt was in high school Gottlieb had begun to lay the groundwork that would lead to Wilt playing for the Philadelphia Warriors. That effort paid off when, in May 1959, Wilt signed a one-year contract with the Warriors for a reported $30,000 – though with incentives, it was more likely between $40,000 and $50,000. That would make Wilt’s salary more than the amount Gottlieb had paid for the Warriors franchise seven years earlier ($25,000). Whatever the actual figure, Wilt’s salary made him the highest-paid player in the NBA at that time. Bob Cousy, the star guard for the Boston Celtics, had been the highest paid at $25,000, but that’s just chump change for today’s NBA players. There was one thing his teammates certainly appreciated about Wilt, however: “He helped us all get raises,” Arizin recalled, a fact confirmed many times by Gottlieb.
Gottlieb’s philosophy was to draft, when possible, Philadelphia-area college stars, whose fans, presumably, would want to see them play as professionals. The 1959-1960 Philadelphia Warriors had one of the league’s best scorers in Paul Arizin of Villanova, and one of its top passers in Temple’s Guy Rodgers. The other Philadelphians on the 1959-1960 Warriors were Tom Gola, who had a solid professional career but never achieved the greatness of his college years at La Salle College, and Ernie Beck, he of the distinctive white streak in his black hair, who still holds nine records at the University of Pennsylvania – highest points and most rebounds per season among them. Those five men – Arizin, Guy Rodgers, Tom Gola, Ernie Beck, and Wilt Chamberlain – had all attended local high schools, had all been named to major-media college All-America teams, and had all played for the professional team in the city in which they were born is unique in professional sports.
The remaining squad members of the 1959-1960 Warriors were Woody Sauldsberry and Andy Johnson, both alumni of the Harlem Globetrotters; Joe Ruklick, the opposing center for Northwestern in Wilt’s first collegiate game; and Joe Graboski, Vern Hatton, and Guy Sparrow, the only three of whom it could be said Wilt had no prior connection. The coach was Neil Johnston, a former NBA scoring champion and star pivotman, as the center was then called. Johnston and Arizin had led the Warriors to the NBA title in 1956, but Johnston’s knees were shot. Feeling sorry for Johnston, who was about to lose his job to Wilt, Gottlieb appointed him coach – another inexperienced rookie coach for Wilt’s first year in the NBA, just like his first varsity season at Kansas.
Ernie Beck recalled Wilt’s initial season in the league:
We used to go up to Hershey [Pennsylvania] for training camp, which was always a bitch: two-a-day workouts – morning and afternoon. You ran and ran and ran. We’d always do laps before every practice in the morning and the afternoon. We’d do 10 to 20 laps around the gym, and Wilt used to lap everybody because he had such tremendous stamina. He was a strong, strong man, yet he was a gentle guy. One of the few guys I ever saw him mad at was Clyde Lovellette.
Wilt used to needle me. He’d say, “Well, Ernie, I even considered going to Penn, becoming an Ivy Leaguer.” I’d respond, “Thank heaven you never went to Penn, because I would never have had the records I still have.”
Wilt went his own way. He was about 10 levels above the rest of us in terms of fame and personality. One thing I admired in Wilt was he never had an ounce of prejudice. I remember Bill Russell was very bitter, but I never saw any of that with Wilt. Wilt had a lot of friends, black and white.
Paul Arizin observed that Wilt wasn’t really a rookie in the sense of having the usual uncertainties about making it as a professional. “Wilt had always been – and rightfully so – very conscious of his own ability. He fit in just like a veteran,” Arizin maintained. Wilt was always especially fond of, and had great respect for, Arizin, whom he considered one of the greatest players he ever played with. “Wilt was always a very private person,” Arizin recalled. “He went his own way: we saw him at practice and we saw him at games. Guy Rodgers, Woody Sauldsberry, and Andy Johnson were his closest friends on the team. We were all friendly with Wilt, but not a close friendship. He had Vince Miller [an Overbrook buddy] and other people from Philly, who were his close friends, just like I had my friends from the neighborhood, and Tommy Gola and Ernie Beck had friends from theirs.”
Teammate Beck recollected that:
Woody Sauldsberry and Andy Johnson used to tease Wilt, telling him he didn’t have all the records and he didn’t do all the things [he said he had], that he was just making it up. Wilt brought his scrapbook into the locker room – the one showing that he had scored 90 points in a high school game. All the guys were laughing – they knew he had done it.
In the fall of 1959, as a publicity measure, there appeared in The Evening Bulletin a picture of Tom Gola and Paul Arizin measuring Wilt, at 7'11⁄16". (The photograph is distressing to behold: from the passive, though pained, expression on Wilt’s face, he seems to feel humiliated and violated. It’s as if he were a freak to be measured and marveled at, like a rendition of a prehistoric animal one views behind glass-enclosed exhibits in a natural history museum.)
Though Wilt said he was 7'1⁄16", the 7'11⁄16" became Wilt’s “official height” in club and league publications, although it was often rounded off to 7'1". To this day, friends and teammates swear that he was taller. “He was 7'31⁄2",” his accountant and business adviser, Alan Levitt, said. “I’m convinced he was taller than the listed figure,” asserted Norm Drucker, who refereed hundreds of games in which Wilt participated. “When he came out against players who were 6'10", he looked a foot taller than they did.” Maurice King, who had played with Wilt at Kansas, concurred: “I imagine Wilt was 7'2" or 7'4" because I’ve seen him next to other seven-footers.” Jack Ramsay, who at one point was Wilt’s general manager, told the Philadelphia Daily News’ Jack Kiser that Wilt was 7'4". And Kiser, who has probably written more articles about Wilt than any writer, used various heights to describe him – from 7'1" to 7'4".
According to no less an authority than Stan Lorber, Wilt’s doctor and one of his closest friends for more than 40 years:
Wilt was exactly 7'11⁄16". We had a special apparatus built by a scientific team at Temple University Hospital to measure him and all subsequent players. He looked so much bigger than he was because his shoulders were so huge [and his waist was narrow]. Luke Jackson was 6'9" and weighed 270 pounds. Wilt made Luke look like nothing.
The writer Arnold Hano recalled that when he spoke to other tall athletes, some 6'9", he thought of them as big, but he classified Wilt in another realm. “You don’t raise your eyes to him; you tilt back your head,” Hano wrote.
Robert Allen Cherry became a journalist after teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer in the West African bush. He has been a general assignment reporter or editor for four newspapers, including The Arizona Republic, and his freelance work has appeared in The New York Times and The Jerusalem Post, among other publications. He played varsity basketball at Wilt's alma mater, Overbrook High School
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