Big Norman turns 70

Kurt —  August 22, 2006

This month Wilt Chamberlain would have turned 70. Long after his playing days and his passing, he remains one of the more complex and misunderstood men ever in the game, a giant who could be both intimidating and gentle. A man who never received the universal love of the fans and who, unfairly, was often blamed for the shortcomings of those around him.

He’s also one of the few NBA legends I’ve ever met (out on the beach in Pacific Palisades, when he was playing a lot of beach volleyball and so was I). My friends and I were all a little intimidated by him, but he was always polite in the brief conversations we had.

In honor of his birthday, there are a couple of interesting stories out on the Web today. The best is an excerpt of Roland Lazenby’s book The Show talking about Wilt that really is a must read:

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.”


Bill Bertka (about Wilt coming to the Lakers): “(Laker coach) 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.”

If you like the excerpt on Roland’s blog, you really need to get the book. It is a great history of the Lakers.

Bill Dwyer, the former Sports Editor at the LA Times (and a Notre Dame grad, so you know he’s a good guy) has been doing some history pieces and also provides some insight into Wilt:

In dozens of ways, Chamberlain was quirky.

He was known to eat fried chicken just before game time, and hot dogs at halftime. When he traveled, he wanted his seat on the plane to be front row, aisle seat, right side. He played 1,045 games without fouling out. His soft drink was 7-Up. Always 7-Up.

All of this helps give you a window into a man that can be argued is the greatest Laker, and maybe the greatest NBA player, ever.