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Big Norman
by Roland Lazenby / August 24, 2006

This excerpt is taken from the new book, The Show: The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers in the Words of Those Who Lived It (McGraw-Hill), written by Roland Lazenby. The book can now be found in bookstores around the United States. It is available online for $27.95 at mcgraw-hill.com or Amazon.com.

His close friends called him "Big Norman." But to the basketball public, he was "Wilt the Stilt." He disliked that name, of course. He was a person, not a stilt. The name, as much as anything, defined his tenuous relationship with the fans and the writers. After all, he was a giant, and they expected giant things of him. That certainly was no more than he expected of himself. Unfortunately, the task was never up to him alone. Basketball is a five-man game. And that seemed to be the crux of the problem for Wilton Norman Chamberlain.

Wilt Chamberlain: "I felt that I was gifted enough to do some things on the basketball floor. I couldn't do everything I wanted to do, because if that was the case, I'd have won every game."

As big and talented as he was, Chamberlain's career progress had often been frustrated by the presence of Boston's Bill Russell. Where Chamberlain struggled most of his career out of context, Russell always seemed to have the right coach, the right teammates, and they got the right results. On the other hand, Chamberlain's career was a profound contradiction. For him, things were wonderfully easy and terribly difficult, all at the same time.

"The world is made up of Davids," he once explained, "and I am Goliath."

Bill Russell: "Wilt was my greatest opponent. It's not even close."

Wilt Chamberlain: "Basketball is a team game, played by positions, played in different times. I was fortunate to come along at time that was great basketball, a different kind of a game, played a little bit more technically. I was a different breed of athlete at that particular time."

Jerry West: "The ironic thing about Wilt was that he never seemed to be relaxed and fun. I think after he got out of basketball, he became much more relaxed. Much of it had to do with the fact he was Wilt Chamberlain, and no one pulled for him. I think those things really bothered him all his life. There's no question it was tough to be a giant."

As a 6-foot-11 ninth-grader in Philadelphia, he led his undefeated Overbrook High team against West Catholic High in the finals of the city championship, where a scenario developed that would become miserably familiar to Chamberlain over the years. West Catholic packed four players around him inside, but his teammates couldn't make the open shots. Overbrook lost its only game of the season.

Over the next three years, his teams won 58 games and lost just 3, while Chamberlain averaged 36.9 points (he scored 90 in one game). His junior and senior years provided a study in dominance, with Overbrook claiming consecutive city titles.

The pro scouts knew Chamberlain was ready then, but NBA rules forbade the drafting of a high schooler. So he chose the University of Kansas, where the Jayhawks' offense focused on his towering presence. Which meant that opposing defenses did the same.

Dick Harp, former Kansas coach: "That was always the problem when Wilt was playing. The defense was always going to concentrate on him. Teams would rig zone defenses around him with three and four men, making it impossible for him to move, particularly around the basket."

And defenders became quite physical with him.

Dick Harp: "It was difficult for the officials to be objective about Wilt. There were many opportunities for officials to call defensive fouls. Most of the time they didn't. Wilt, though, always managed to keep his composure and managed to power through our opponents."

But, as Chamberlain himself noted, his frustrations led to errors in his method. When he rebounded, he liked to take the ball in one hand and slam it against the other, making a gunshot of a sound that startled the smaller players around him. What he should have been doing was whipping a quick outlet pass downcourt. When he blocked shots, he liked to smack the ball loudly and violently and usually out of play. As a result, opponents retained the ball and had another chance to score. This habit would later hurt him when he faced Russell, who always brush-blocked the ball, often creating a Celtics fast break.

Dick Harp: "Wilt understood the game of basketball. He had an opinion about the game and was bright about it. He wanted to use his size in close proximity to the basket. But he didn't develop his skills beyond that. If he wanted to, he could have been a significant playmaker. Wilt had demonstrated he could have shot the ball and been an effective passer."

Jerry West: "One thing about him, he always thought he was the best at everything he did. That simply was not the case. If that was the case, he would have been an 80 percent free throw shooter."

Over his sophomore season, Chamberlain averaged 30 points, 19 rebounds, and 9 blocked shots. And Kansas was clearly the best team in college basketball. But in the finals of the NCAA tournament the Jayhawks lost in triple overtime to UNC, an outcome that set the cornerstone of Chamberlain's frustrations. He returned to Kansas the next season, but the Jayhawks lost in postseason play to rival Kansas State, a team coached by Tex Winter.

Disgusted, Chamberlain decided to leave the University of Kansas. Because his class had not graduated, he was still ineligible for the NBA draft. So he played a barnstorming season with the Harlem Globetrotters, made a good sum of money, and waited his turn. That arrived the following season, 1959/60, when he made a heralded return to Philadelphia to play for the Warriors. His presence had an immediate impact on the league's statistical races. He led the NBA in scoring (37.6 points per game) and rebounding (27 per game). The next season, he became the first player in league history to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor. For the 1961/62 season, Chamberlain maximized man's potential for 48 minutes of basketball by averaging 50.4 points per game.

Bill Russell: "For accumulating numbers, there's not anybody to even come close to that. I'll just say that he played 49 minutes a game or something like that. I think that's absolutely incredible. And we won the Eastern Conference by eight games that season."

The next season, Chamberlain scored a mere 44.8 points per game and won the league rebounding title for the fourth straight season. He made each season his statistical fiefdom, and yet they all ended in bitter disappointment. The reason, of course, was the Boston Celtics. Quite often Chamberlain would dominate Russell statistically, but he could never vanquish the Boston center and his teammates in the big games. Chamberlain was actually taller than his listed height of seven-foot-one and towered over the six-foot-nine Russell, which caused the public to marvel at the smaller man's success.

Bill Russell: "Most people couldn't relate to what an imposing physical thing Wilt was. The first time you see him, it's like you're standing in his shadow. He's so big. Then he was really smart and a great athlete. The only saving thing is that he was not me. He was not me."

Bob Cousy: "A lot of people over the years have said that Bill Russell had more heart and desire than Wilt. That wasn't it. Russ was simply quicker than Wilt, and he knew how to use that quickness. That was obvious from the first time I ever saw the two of them on the court together. This is a tremendous advantage Russell had on Wilt. He didn't give him the offensive position he wanted. Russell kept him from overpowering him and going to the basket. Russell had better speed and quickness, so he could always beat Wilt to the spot. He pushed Chamberlain out a little further from the basket, forcing him to put the ball on the floor once or twice. We always felt Russell could handle him one-on-one."

As a result, Chamberlain was forced to develop and shoot a fallaway jumper that was far less effective than his dunks and short bank shot. His critics, meanwhile, saw Chamberlain as a giant fascinated by his own statistics.

Jerry West: "I've always felt that that part of him people misinterpreted. They would say, 'He's a selfish guy, he doesn't care, he's not a team player.' That's simply not the truth. It bothered him all the negative publicity he received, which frankly was not justified. It was really pretty ugly. He's like all of us. No athlete wants to fail. Chamberlain certainly didn't want to."

The Warriors moved to San Francisco for 1963/64, and Chamberlain again led the league in scoring. He also broadened the scope of his game by finishing fifth in assists. It didn't matter. The Warriors lost in the NBA Finals that year to Russell and the Celtics.

San Francisco traded Chamberlain to the Philadelphia 76ers in the middle of the next season. "Chamberlain is not an easy man to love," Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli later said of the trade. "I don't mean that I personally dislike him. He's a good friend of mine. But the fans in San Francisco never learned to love him. I guess most fans are for the little man and the underdog, and Wilt is neither. He's easy to hate, and we were the best draw in the NBA on the road, when people came to see him lose."

Chamberlain quickly made the 76ers into a title contender, but that spring they lost a seven-game series to the Celtics again. The following year, Philadelphia actually beat out Boston for the Eastern Division's regular-season crown but got caught flat-footed in the Eastern playoffs and lost to the Celtics 4-1.

Chamberlain's frustrations were no deeper than those felt by West, Baylor, and the Lakers. Bill Russell had simply built a wall around the NBA title. He had made it his personal property, or so it seemed until 1967, when Chamberlain finally led the 76ers to a 68-13 record and the league title, leading many observers to call them the greatest team of all time.

Jack Ramsay, former 76er general manager: "I think Wilt's best season was in '67 when the Sixers won it and Alex Hannum was his coach. He became more of a team player that year than ever before. Wilt was very stats conscious. He wanted to lead the league in scoring, rebounding; lead the league in everything. And he was capable of doing that."

But Boston's comeback victory over the Warriors in the 1968 Eastern Finals soon quieted all the "greatest team ever" talk, and Wilt decided he wanted out of Philadelphia. Jack Kent Cooke was only happy to help him find a ticket.

Jack Ramsay: "Wilt demanded a trade and we gave in to him, which is how he got to the Lakers. A powerhouse guy. Could do everything. Shoot, rebound, block shots, passes. He led the league in assists one year. That's the incredible stat. No center's ever done that."

Jack Kent Cooke: "We held our talks in June in the library of my Bel Air mansion. Things got off to a very good start. We talked about the fact that we each owned a 1962 Bentley Continental. We talked about antique furniture, art, even the English language."

Finally they talked about money, a five-year deal at $250,000 per season, making Chamberlain what was believed to be the highest paid athlete in any pro sport. The Lakers shipped Archie Clark, Darrell Imhoff, and Jerry Chambers to Philadelphia for Chamberlain. The deal was announced in early July, setting off immediate speculation about Chamberlain, West, and Baylor on the same team. Could they share one ball?

"We'll simply have the best team in basketball history," Chamberlain replied.

Seeing an opportunity to tweak the Lakers, Red Auerbach told reporters, "I wonder if Jerry West and Elgin Baylor are going to be willing to be underlings to Wilt Chamberlain?"

Cooke and Chamberlain were infuriated. "A statement like that is typical of Mr. Genius," Cooke shot back. "It's preposterous."

Bill Bertka: "Butch van Breda Kolff was at a party at my house in Santa Barbara when he heard that Chamberlain was being traded. He was upset. Butch didn't have anything against Chamberlain or his effectiveness. But you had to have Chamberlain in the post, and that dictated a style of offense that Butch didn't particularly like. He'd rather have all five men moving, all five men interchangeable and sharing the ball. Van Breda Kolff had had the great Princeton team. Schaus coached fast-break basketball. When Van Breda Kolff came in, he had a great first year, the second year was even better, and then they acquired Wilt. He wasn't an admirer of Wilt's game and how he could fit in."

Within hours, the trouble started. First Chamberlain read in news accounts that van Breda Kolff said he "could handle" his new center, who'd make a great rebounder for the Lakers. Who needs "handling"? Chamberlain wondered. Then at the Maurice Stokes Game that summer at Kutsher's Club, van Breda Kolff asked Chamberlain to don a Lakers T-shirt and pose with him for a photo. When Chamberlain refused, the coach fumed.

In training camp, the tension increased a notch. Van Breda Kolff thought the center gave him one good day's practice, then began slacking off. Chamberlain thought the coach was trying to run a pro team with college rules.

Then came a season-opening loss to the 76ers where Chamberlain concentrated on defense and rebounding. The next game, Chamberlain scored big points and they beat New York. "Tell the coach," Wilt told the writers afterward when they asked about the difference in the two games.

A few games later, van Breda Kolff angrily benched Chamberlain when rookie Wes Unseld of the Washington Bullets out-rebounded him, 27 to 21. The newspapers enjoyed the proceedings immensely, questioning Chamberlain's $250,000 salary and his sinking scoring average (20.5 points per game). "There are certain deficiencies with every club," Chamberlain replied. "Here with the Lakers I've tried to blend in, lend myself to the deficiencies, try to help overcome them. Here with the likes of Jerry and Elgin we have people who can score. So I've simply tried to get the rebounds, get the ball to one of them so we can score."

The questions about Chamberlain's salary were pointless, Hawks general manager Marty Blake told reporters. "There's no athlete in the world worth $250,000, or even $200,000, unless you can take it in at the gate. In L.A., they take it in at the gate."

Amid the turmoil, Chamberlain still managed to impress.

Bill Walton: "The first time I met Wilt I was in high school, and Wilt had just come to the Lakers. Our high school team played the preliminary game to a Lakers/San Diego Rocket game in the San Diego Sports Arena. I'm 16 years old and stuttered so badly that I was painfully shy. I'm walking off the court with my head down, and the Lakers are standing there ready to go onto the court. As I walk by, Wilt reaches out his arm and stops me. He steps out of their line and stands in front of me and puts his hand out and says, 'Hey, Bill, I'm Wilt. You're doing really well. Keep it up.' I was like blown away."

Bill Bertka: "Wilt was always the villain. Wherever Wilt went in those days he was always booed and unappreciated. But, in tribute to the Lakers fans, from the day he stepped on the Forum floor he was never booed, never shown disrespect. He was only appreciated. But it took him about a year here to realize that."

Some observers, however, questioned whether Chamberlain's presence hadn't weakened the team. He often set up on the left low post, dead smack in the way of Baylor's drives.

Bill Bertka: "Wilt was in the post, so it shut the lane down. That somewhat affected West's game, too, although West was one of the greatest pull-up shooters to ever play the game. Elgin liked to take it all the way to the basket, so it affected Baylor more than West or Goodrich. It certainly didn't affect their scoring. If Wilt was never acquired, the Lakers wouldn't have won that '72 world championship."

Van Breda Kolff sought to move the center to a high post, but Chamberlain figured that only took him away from rebounding. Privately, Chamberlain told friends that the coach favored West and Baylor and blamed him for the losses.

Fred Schaus: "I finally had to call the two of them in for a peacemaking session, and I tried to lay down some new rules. No more bashing each other in the press. Van Breda Kolff is the boss. I like both of them, but those two guys just couldn't agree on anything. Six weeks later, I had to fly to Atlanta for another meeting. After that meeting, I told the players to have their own meeting. Baylor was the captain, so he ran it. Wilt was told to stop frowning at his teammates on the court when things went wrong. The players told him to stop being so aloof, that he needed to socialize more."

That helped, but after a February 3 loss to Seattle, van Breda Kolff and Chamberlain screamed at each other for 20 minutes and would have come to blows in the locker room if Baylor hadn't stepped in. "It was embarrassing for everyone to hear them screaming like animals," one Laker confided to a writer. "It was ridiculous. The guys wanted to hide."

Bill Bertka: "Wilt being the dominant personality that he was and Bill being the dominant personality that he was, there were sparks. Wilt had definite opinions about how the game should be played and how he should be used. So did Butch. Yet they both wanted to win in the worst possible way."

Fred Schaus: "After that Seattle blowup, we had yet another meeting and another truce. Wilt asked Butch, 'What do you want me to do?' Butch told him, 'Play defense and rebound.'"

Chamberlain complied, and the Lakers won the conference title.

Jack Ramsay: "Wilt's skills had diminished by the time he got to L.A. They were on the downside. By that time, I don't think he was capable of scoring at the same level that he once did."

By the 1969 playoffs, the Lakers were a picture of team defense, giving up just 94.7 points a game. Baylor, Chamberlain, and West were the heart of the lineup. But there was more. There was Keith Erickson out of UCLA, recently acquired from Chicago, as sixth man. There were John Egan, the veteran guard, to boost the backcourt, and Mel Counts, the seven-footer and former Celtic, to do the same up front. With Counts playing alongside Chamberlain, Los Angeles could close the lane and make opponents live off of jump shots.

On the strength of their defense, the Lakers advanced to the most disappointing of their Finals meetings with the Celtics. L.A. had taken the top seed in the Western with a 55-27 record and thus had home-court advantage for the Finals with the Celtics, who had finished fourth in the Eastern.

Jerry West: "Most of the years we played they were better than we were. But in '69 they were not better. Period. I don't care how many times we played it; they weren't better. We were better. Period. And we didn't win. And that was the toughest one."

Roland Lazenby is a sportswriter and the author of numerous sports books, including Mindgames: Phil Jackson's Long Strange Journey and Mad Game: The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant. His work has been featured in such publications as Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and many others

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