Pulse: Q&A: Tall Tale

Wilt Chamberlain, raised in Overbrook and later an NBA star in this city, was the biggest athlete, metaphorically and otherwise, that Philadelphia has misunderstood (which is saying something). In Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era (Crown), San Francisco journalist Gary M. Pomerantz not only re-­creates the greatest scoring night of the Dipper’s career, in a dingy gym in Hershey; he also brings the inscrutable star to life.

PM: Why wasn’t Wilt outspoken about race?
GP: Wilt once said, “I’m no Jackie Robinson — some are meant to be, others aren’t.” But his seeming shrug about race was in stark contrast to his own life. He took any race-based impediment to self-definition and crushed it. For example, he sometimes dated white women, if discreetly.

Why did Wilt tell such wild stories about himself—that he could drive across the country in 36 hours nonstop, without using a bathroom, or that he was attacked by a mountain lion he killed with his bare hands?
He was clearly dealing with the Goliath syndrome. Wilt had an obsessive need to prove his greatness in everything.

Such as bedding 20,000 women?
A ridiculous boast he would regret. The Dipper told a woman he’d known a long time, “What’s a zero between friends?” She believed the 2,000 number.

His teammates didn’t seem to know what to make of him.
Once, coach Frank McGuire called a practice strictly for free-throw shooting. Players understood this was his way of saying, “Wilt, you’ve got to improve your free-throw shooting.” Wilt showed up, reluctantly, and brought two big dogs with him. He strung their leashes around the backboard post. He didn’t even change from his street clothes. He practiced free throws at the distant end of the court, alone.

Was he a lonely guy?
He lived alone and died alone. Once, in 1977, Chamberlain phoned a friend late at night, after they’d shared dinner, to say, “Don’t you ever just wish that you could go home with the same person every night?” She saw Wilt open his gold leather pouch once, and out tumbled phone numbers of women, penned on envelopes, scraps of newspaper, matchbooks, cocktail napkins. There were 50 or so numbers, perhaps more. “Lorna?” the Dipper said, reading one. He asked himself, aloud, “Who is Lorna?”