Center Of Attention
Known as “Wilt the Stilt” and “The Big Dipper,” basketball great Wilton Norman Chamberlain was opinionated and iconoclastic, a seeker of good times and intellectual stimulation whose outsized personality matched his towering 7-foot stature and legendary athletic accomplishments.
Chamberlain needed these vast personal resources, given his public status as a black superstar in the racially charged atmosphere that pervaded Lawrence in the late 1950s.
Not only was Chamberlain a prominent African-American in a city struggling with desegregation, his athletic career was the subject of intense scrutiny from both local and national media. As his teammate Bob Billings recalled in 1959, Chamberlain “had to keep in mind that any and everything he did would reflect not only upon himself, but also upon his teammates, his school, and the entire colored race.”
Chamberlain thrived despite such enormous pressures, and remembered his years at KU fondly. “I’ve always been high on Kansas,” recalled Chamberlain in 1979. “Maybe a little higher than I should have been…When I came to the University of Kansas there was still a lot of bigotry going on.”
The issue of racial discrimination and its effect on Chamberlain’s relationship with KU began during his recruitment from Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School. Chamberlain was among the first high school athletes to attract intense recruiting pressure from all regions of the country.
He wished to experience life away from home, so he immediately eliminated colleges from the East Coast and the segregated South. At the time he felt basketball on the West Coast was of a lower quality than in other regions of the country.
That left the Midwest, and soon Kansas, Indiana, and Dayton were vying for Chamberlain’s favor. Dayton lost out when Chamberlain discovered that the town’s restaurants were segregated. KU simply outworked Indiana; KU Basketball Coach Forrest “Phog” Allen later called “the Indiana bunch” the “worst rushers in the world.”
Meanwhile, KU adopted a strategy of getting prominent African-Americans who had ties to the school to contact Chamberlain and extol the virtues of an education in Lawrence. Dowdal Davis, general manager of the Kansas City Call, Lloyd Kerfords, a wealthy black businessman who owned a limestone quarry in Atchison, and Etta Moten, a well-known actress and concert singer who had earned a degree in voice from KU in 1931, all contacted Chamberlain on KU’s behalf.
The young Chamberlain was apparently taken by this version of a full-court press and decided to commit to Kansas. “Of course I used everything we had to get him,” admitted Phog Allen when asked what tricks he used to attract Chamberlain. “What do you think I am, a Sunday school teacher?”
Both Allen and Chamberlain tended to confront situations head-on. Upon first arriving in Lawrence one night late in the summer of 1955, Chamberlain went straight to Allen’s house to tell him that on his trip west, a restaurant in Kansas City had refused him service. The coach soothed his angry new recruit, but the effect was only temporary.
Much to Chamberlain’s dismay he quickly found that “the whole area around Lawrence…was infested with segregation.” He promptly made a practice of visiting segregated restaurants around town, sitting in them until he was served.
In his 1973 autobiography Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door Chamberlain bragged that he “single-handedly integrated the whole area.”
Despite these troubles, Chamberlain’s fellow students immediately embraced him. He was dean of his pledge class in the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He shared a room in Carruth-O’Leary Dormitory with track star Charley Tidwell. (To accommodate Chamberlain, the residence hall installed a special 7-foot, 6-inch bed!) Chamberlain fit in so well he was subject to the usual freshman practical jokes; sometimes Tidwell would wake him up by pouring a glass of water on his head.
During his sophomore year Chamberlain instituted a campus fashion trend when he popularized black leather Ivy League caps. He even had his own thirty-minute weekly radio show on student station KUOK. “Flip'er with Dipper” featured current hit records and Chamberlain’s banter, as well as occasional guest appearances by his fellow Jayhawks.
On one show, Chamberlain granted listeners the dubious pleasure of listening to him play the bongos accompanied by a teammate on spoons; later, Chamberlain recalled, “we made a helluva sound.” He was in every way the biggest of all the big men on campus.
Remarkably, Chamberlain lived up to his hype as an athlete. Before his first game Coach Allen had dubbed him “one of the greatest players, already, that I’ve ever seen.” Chamberlain made his KU basketball debut on November 18, 1955, before 14,000 fans at the Allen Field House in the annual scrimmage between the freshman and varsity teams.
Chamberlain dominated the contest, pouring in an astonishing 42 points and snaring 29 rebounds to lead his squad to an unprecedented victory. After the game, Allen quipped that “Chamberlain could team with two Phi Beta Kappas and two co-eds and give us a battle.”
Under the Big Seven rules of the time, freshmen were unable to play varsity basketball, but Chamberlain did not need basketball to make an impact on KU athletics.
In his freshman track season, he set the Big Seven freshman indoor record in the High Jump, placed fourth at the Kansas Relays in the Triple Jump, and captured third in the Big Seven at the Shot Put. He went on to tie the Big Eight indoor record in the High Jump with a leap of 6-6 3/4 during his junior year at KU in 1957-58.
Chamberlain’s sophomore season (1956-57) began and ended in heartbreak. Coach Allen turned 70, the mandatory retirement age for Kansas state employees, and was unexpectedly forced to retire. Allen’s age was no surprise, of course, but most people, including Chamberlain, assumed the popular coach would find a way to circumvent the rules.
But it was not to be. KU promoted mild-mannered assistant Dick Harp to head coach. Though Chamberlain admired the new coach, he had wanted to play for the legendary Allen.
At the same time, pressure on the rising star was growing ever greater. Jimmy Breslin, for example, pondered in The Saturday Evening Post whether Chamberlain’s overwhelming supremacy on the court would ruin basketball.
The buzz only increased when Chamberlain dominated Northwestern in his regular season debut on December 3, 1956, in the Allen Field House when he scored 52 points, a single game KU record that still stands.
Yet Chamberlain did not bring a NCAA championship to Kansas. The Big Dipper averaged 29.6 points and 18.9 rebounds per game, and led his team to the cusp of an NCAA championship, only for the Jayhawks to lose a heartbreaking triple-overtime thriller to North Carolina.
Forty years later, the intensely competitive Chamberlain still described this 1957 loss as “devastating…because I thought I let the University of Kansas down and my teammates down.”
Despite his successes, Chamberlain grew disenchanted with the college game. Most teams clobbered him with special defenses; sometimes two, three or even four opposing players would guard him. Often the opposing team would attempt to control the game by simply holding onto the ball.
In one game, Oklahoma State passed 160 times before taking a shot, a tactic Chamberlain understood but one that he did not consider “basketball.”
Despite opposing teams’ roughshod tactics and opposing fans’ occasionally racially tinged taunting, Chamberlain never lost his composure. But these maneuvers certainly frustrated him, and he felt they interfered with his growth as an athlete.
In June 1958, Chamberlain announced in an article he wrote for Look magazine that he would not return to Kansas for his senior year. The piece contained Chamberlain’s reflections on his time at KU, including his observation that he was able “to do what some of my sponsors hoped I would do: Promote interracial good will.”
Chamberlain went on to a superlative professional career. In 1960 he not only earned National Basketball Association (NBA) rookie of the year honors, but was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, an award he would win three more times.
Chamberlain won seven straight NBA scoring titles; in 1962 he scored a flabbergasting 100 points in one game during a season in which he averaged a mind-boggling 50.4 points per game. Chamberlain led the NBA in rebounding eleven times; once, he snared 55 rebounds in a single game, and during the 1960-61 season, he averaged an astonishing 27.2 rebounds per game. In 1968 Chamberlain led the NBA in assists.
He finished his career with 31,419 points, now second all time, and still owns the record for most career rebounds with 23,924. All told, the former Jayhawk retains 56 NBA records nearly 30 years after he retired from professional basketball.
On January 17, 1998, Chamberlain returned to his alma mater to retire his KU jersey. During a halftime ceremony at Allen Field House, an obviously emotional Chamberlain announced that his return was “something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s nice to be back home.”
Chamberlain wore his KU letter jacket as he told a wildly cheering crowd that “I’m humbled and deeply honored…I’m a Jayhawk and I know now why there is so much tradition here and why so many wonderful things have come from here…Rock Chalk Jayhawk!”
Sadly, Chamberlain passed away less than two years after KU retired his jersey, succumbing to heart failure at age 63. Sy Goldberg, Chamberlain’s lawyer, remembered him this way: “He wasn’t a basketball player. He was a great, great human being who happened to play basketball…He made movies. He wrote books. He became a financial wizard. He did whatever he wanted because he was Wilt.”
Department of History
University of Kansas