In 1992, after NBA great Wilt Chamberlain wrote his book, “A View from Above,” I interviewed him for my Sports Innerview TV Series. He was 56 years old at the time, looking back on his legendary career that included two NBA Championships, one with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967 and the other with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1972; however, he is perhaps most remembered for setting the single-game scoring record in the NBA, scoring 100 points in a 169-147 win over the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962. Many of his scoring and rebounding titles are still in the record books.
But it was my conversation with Chamberlain about several of his personal issues that stand out in my mind all these years later. The 13-time NBA All-star and four-time NBA MVP was one of the greatest players in basketball history. He was also one of the most controversial sports icons in the world. He had just written a book in which he admitted to bedding over 20,000 women. The book included much more about his life and career, but of course, his bragging about the preposterous number of women he slept with created the most attention in sports media back then (and surely if he bragged about that today, he might have suffered more dire consequences by women’s organizations).
Everyone wanted to know how that number was even possible. Putting my disgust about the topic aside, I asked Chamberlain about it, and he talked about the “orgy” culture of sports at the time and about how easy it was to connect with ‘groupies’ in the hotel, at the games, etc. The conversation quickly shifted to the fact that Chamberlain thought he was misunderstood throughout his life.
“I was played the villain so much because I was bigger and stronger than most, and they cast me as the villain everywhere I went,” shared Chamberlain. “A ‘villain’ is hard to really get to know on a personal level, and you see them as ‘mean, insensitive type’ people. Also, when you have this great size, sensitivity, once again, is not given to you.”
“They talk about all these things that you can do and whatever,” he continued. “But never do they say you are gentle, really, sensitive about things. We are, and we had that going for us. A big dog tends to be much more at ease with kids and gentle with them. The little one was always yelping and yelping. I don’t know where they get that ‘because you’re big, you have to have this gruffness about you.’”
“You do mention the sensitivity issue in the book,” I continued. “When you talked about sex, and how rewarding it felt to you that women would find you very sensual and sensitive and that it was such a shock to some people that you could be that way.”
Chamberlain lit up and answered, “Yeah. Well, let’s talk about that a second. I mean, I think my being different helped me in a lot of ways in life. I think my attraction, if there was an attraction that women had for me, was the fact that I was different. Of course, when you’re famous, you have a little more money than some people, and you’re involved in something like professional sports. That’s an attraction. I think a lot of ladies have found me attractive because I was different, and I acted on that in a way.”
For an athlete who seemed to have everything in the world — a legendary career, an extravagant lifestyle and the presence of a “gentle giant,” Chamberlain admitted to dealing with various issues that affected his psyche his entire life. His main issue was his height, because he had already grown to seven feet tall by the time he was 14 years old.
“Can you imagine,” he asked, “going through America at that time, a man of color, a little boy, 14 years old, that height? I was looked upon as a freak! Today, when you see someone close to my size or whatever, people think ‘sports, basketball, zoom, dollar signs,’ and they don’t think of ‘circus freak’ or what have you. It has changed a lot today, but the toughest thing for me was growing up and being stared at and being looked at and being talked about in that particular way. Other than that, it was a good childhood. But I wanted to hide a little bit.”
One of the great debates in sports history pertains to who was better: Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell, another legendary center in the NBA, who played for the Boston Celtics from 1956-1969, was a 12-time NBA All-Star, a five-time NBA MVP and the centerpiece of the Celtics dynasty that won 11 NBA championships during his 13-year career. At 6’10” and with a 7’4” wingspan, Russell was known for his dominating defensive play.
At the time of our interview, Chamberlain told me he hadn’t talked to Russell in “maybe 22 years.” I asked him if that was because Russell once criticized Chamberlain, saying that he didn’t give 100% in a game and didn’t feel like going out there.
Chamberlain explained, “What he said is, ‘It would take nothing less than a broken back for me to sit on the bench.’ He didn’t realize that I’d asked to come back into the game, those kinds of things. Didn’t know. That was why he said it. Someone had provoked him by asking, ‘If Wilt Chamberlain had been playing, do you guys think you would have won?’ Here’s a guy who already won 10 world championships and against Wilt Chamberlain a lot of them! He didn’t want to hear that BS.”
Chamberlain continued, “I think that he was pitted against me unfairly for both of us. They were saying we were different types of basketball players even though we played the same sport in the same position. I think that maybe some people in the world wanted to see us butt heads. They wanted us to fail.”
Of course, I had to ask Chamberlain the question: Who was better, him or Bill Russell? What followed was one of my all-time favorite interview moments:
“I picked him (Bill Russell) as the number one center of all time probably because he was a complete, complete basketball player,” Chamberlain said.
This surprised me greatly.
“Well, yeah. I’m going to pick him over me right now,” Chamberlain continued. “Yeah, because he also helped his team to win a lot more than maybe I could have helped my team to win.”
“That’s what Bob Cousy said when he was quoted about the differences between you and Bill Russell.He said, ‘you might have out-scored, out-assisted, out-rebounded, but Russell made the other guys better. He wasn’t as individualistic of a player,’” I pointed out.
I clarified again that he was choosing Russell.
“I mean for you, Ann, right now, I’m going to take a back seat. I may feel a little different maybe tomorrow,” he said.
“Kind of as whimsical as your choice in women,” I joked.
“Yeah, well no, not really,” Chamberlain said. “I mean, what I’m trying to say here is that picking who is the best is almost like picking a great dessert. You might feel like apple pie tonight or lemon merengue custard tomorrow. You know what I’m saying? It depends on how you feel that particular night. Both are great desserts. Maybe you have this great desire for ice cream.”
“Your tastes (and opinions) change every day,” I remarked to him.
“Your tastes do change about good things,” he conceded to me.
The entire TV interview with Ann Liguori and her guest, Wilt Chamberlain, can be viewed on sportsinnerview.com. To learn more about Ann Liguori and her legendary sports broadcasting career, visit www.annliguori.com. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: Ann Liguori Productions Inc.