13 Years Since We Lost Wilt: The Beginning

Wilton Norman Chamberlain was born on August 21, 1936.  It’s been thirteen years since we lost him suddenly, and since “13” was both his and my lucky number, it seems right to remember him today on what would have been his 76th birthday.  Seventy-six doesn’t seem old anymore and yet we lost him when he was oh so young at 63.

Wilt Chamberlain and Lynda HueyWilt Chamberlain and Lynda Huey

My choice is to count from his birthday rather than from the day he died, October 12, 1999.  I was the last person to see him alive – we were very close at the end of his life.  That closeness was a long time in coming, 28 years to be exact.

He was at the peak of his athletic prime when I met him in August, 1971, and I was closing out my athletic career as a sprinter for various track clubs while at the same time crossing over into beach volleyball.  That’s where I met Wilt, at State Beach.  (For the uninitiated, that’s the volleyball beach where Chautauqua and West Channel Drive meet Pacific Coast Highway known as PCH.)  Wilt was a self-indulgent 35 and I was a feisty 24.   That was recipe for combustion.

Gene Selznick, “Mr. Volleyball” of that time period had told me that Wilt didn’t have a partner for the mixed-doubles tournament that week-end, so I showed up simply knowing I would play with Wilt.  I got there early, sat in my beach chair and waited.  In a bit, I heard a ruckus behind me and a low, booming voice surrounded by lots of giggles.  I got up to walk around the site to plan my approach.  I didn’t get a chance.  Wilt he spotted me instantly and bellowed, “Hey, San Jose!”  I was wearing my San Jose T-shirt over my bikini, and not knowing that Wilt loved track, didn’t realize he would recognize my sprinters legs as something he appreciated.  At any rate, that was my entrée and I walked over to the parking lot railings where Wilt sat swinging his long legs.  I saw the horizontal scar across his knee and boldly grabbed hold of it.

“Does this still work?  You’re going to be my partner today.”

“Hey – hey – hey!” he objected.  He was used to being in charge.  He patted the railing.  “Sit here,” he ordered.  “Who are you?”  I heard the words as well as the implication:  why are you talking to me like that?

I told him my San Jose State track teammate, gold medalist Tommie Smith, had introduced us one day in the airport.  Wilt knew that for the lie it was but he pressed forward — he had heard in my lie the fact that here was one white girl who knew the black culture and black language at a time when almost none did.

We played in the tournament together and played badly together.  His passes were erratic and all over the place.  I was used to playing with men whose passes were perfect and made my job of setting the ball so very easy.  I would scramble for his bad pass and if my set wasn’t perfect, high over the net, Wilt would say, “what kind of sprinter are you, anyway?”  Or “terrible set.”  I’d never played with a man who didn’t encourage me toward better performance.  I crumpled under his criticism and played even worse.  He shocked me when he called a ball that fell clearly on the line “out!”  Now he was cheating!  (Ask anyone who played any game with Wilt at any point in his life if he cheated or not.  It’s a standard Wilt joke.)  We lost that first game and I stalked off to get away from that ruthless man.

I wondered why I’d ever wanted to meet and be with Wilt.  Then I remembered the strong urge I had to reach out to him, something I’d felt since the first time I’d seen him play volleyball in Santa Cruz – I simply knew that he and I had been connected for eons and eons.

Somehow we both made it through the second losing game in the double elimination tournament and we were free of each other.  I quickly picked up my folding chair, book, beach bag, and started walking up Temescal Canyon Road to where I’d parked my car.  Before I was 200 yards up the road, there was Wilt in his white Bentley convertible driving along side of me, trying to coax me into the car.  I was so angry at him for being so rude to me in public that I wouldn’t speak to him for at least 100 yards.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Going to get a real workout on the track up there,” I said meaning the Pacific Palisades High School track.

He drove off.  I felt a huge relief and gladly went over to the track to run some sprints and blow off all the upset.  I had just started my warm-up when I saw Wilt’s huge smile from under the goal post.  He was lying on his side, hand holding up his head, watching me run.  He let me ignore him for a lap then he joined me.

“What are you going to run?” he said.

“Oh, some sprint drills and maybe some straight-aways.”

“Want to see a beautiful runner?” Wilt asked.

“Don’t forget I’ve run next to the most beautiful runner of all time.”  That was my reference to teammate Tommie Smith who was known for his cat-like graceful long stride.

Whenever I ran and breathed fiercely next to someone, I began to like that person.  Wilt was no exception.  Since he was barefooted and hadn’t brought shoes, I made the concession of moving onto the cool grass to stride beside him.  I’d never seen knees come up to my eye level before.  That was a first!  But I was determined not to let him know how his size was taking me aback.  After about an hour, we’d lost the animosity from the V-ball tourney and had become track cohorts.

Wilt invited me back to his house he was building and all I got to see was the land and the foundation.  He was living in a small trailer on the property overseeing the building of his dream home.  He couldn’t even stand up.  He had to walk around bent over from sitting in one place to another.

We spent that night together.  Then to get Wilt’s attention, I left town for the next week.  When I returned, there was a message from “Norman” waiting for me.  Somehow I knew that was Wilt.  He and I got together four or five times on and off the beach before I moved to Washington, D.C. for my first teaching job.  When I returned in 1972, the house was built and I brought a few friends to visit.

Wilt Chamberlain's House

Left: Lindy Swanson with Wilt’s great danes Thor, Odin and Careem

Middle: Lynne Gates at brand new back door

Right: View of Stone Canyon from the back patio

He invited us to go water skiing at Lake Lopez with him and some of his long-time friends, Vince Miller and Bob “Vogie” Vogelsang.  Vogie and Vince called Wilt “Big Fellah” and “Wiltie” all day so that the Wiltie began to stick in my mind.  Soon I was calling him that.

Wilt Chamberlain's BoatWilt Chamberlain's Boat

It was a long day of driving and boating and skiing, and when we got back to the house, Wilt totally took my breath away with an incredible feat of strength.  Instead of going through the difficult maneuver of backing the boat trailer into the carport, Wilt simply unhitched the boat from his station wagon and single-handedly pushed that heavy boat and trailer into place.

Everyone has their Strong Wilt story.  That’s mine.

Lynda Huey, M.S., founder of CompletePT and Huey’s Athletic Network, is a former athlete and coach whose own injuries led her into the water to find fitness and healing. She was educated at San Jose State University where she starred on the track and field team during its golden years. Lynda is the author of four books on water exercise and water rehabilitation.

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9 Responses to 13 Years Since We Lost Wilt: The Beginning

  1. Carol says:

    Once a soul mate, always a soul mate. Memories. They bring it all back to life again..words, pictures, feelings. He looked down at you (because he was so tall) in real life and now, I imagine and hope, he’s still doing the same!

    Thanks for sharing Lynda. Love you.

    Your “old” friend, Carol

  2. Nader Ktait says:

    A great read, Lynda! Thanks for sharing.

  3. bpat says:

    More!! I remember bumping into the two of you at a movie theater– you were getting the tickets so he could slip in to sit in the back row.

  4. Reading your post really brought me back to our time together in 80′s L.A. I never really heard the full story of how you met Wilt until now.

    I’m reminded of the few times I got to hang out with you and Wilt – like when we went hiking up above Will Rogers State Park, and Wilt and I decided to race back down that treacherous, rocky mountain trail. He gave me a healthy head start, but that didn’t matter much. Seeing his impossibly long legs bomb down that trail at such high speed made me actually believe the story that he never sprained an ankle in all his years of competitive athletics. I can proudly say, like countless other competitors, that I literally ate Wilt’s dust that day.

    Another memory is how much Wilt loved Jewish Deli – a taste he no doubt acquired in his years bellhopping in the Catskills. He was overjoyed that time I ran out to get some fresh rye bread and corned beef. When I returned to NYC, I also sent him a 2-foot salami from Katz’s Delicatessen, which I understand was similarly appreciated. I had considered including a note with the salami suggesting he try to cut it into 20,000 pieces, but thought better of it.

  5. Ashley says:

    Thanks for sharing Lynda…What neat memories to look back on.

    I’m ready for the next chapter!

  6. fred salenger says:

    Great Blog. Hope things are well.

  7. Sue Swanson says:

    The people we love don’t really leave us……they live on in our hearts and our stories. Thanks for sharing that one.
    Lots of love,
    Another “old” friend, Sue

  8. Alan Silber says:

    Lynda’s interesting post brought back my own memories of Wilt (whom I got to know through Lynda). Wilt and I became friends (or, more realistically, friendly acquaintances) because like me, Wilt was a complete “track nut”. He had been the Pennsylvania State high school 440 yard champion at Overbrook, and retained his love of every event in Athletics (Track and Field for Americans). I got tickets to the 1976 Olympics from Wilt (through Lynda), and sat next to him for the 10 days of the games (morning and late afternoon sessions). While never a great (nor even good — or actually even an average) athlete, Wilt liked it that I was in shape (and a tad flamboyant). I was staying in downtown Montreal, about 6 miles from the stadium where the track meet was being held. I ran out to the stadium each morning for the 10:00 am session. In between sessions, there was a golf course right outside the stadium that was closed to golf so the Olympic athletes could run there. I ran about 6 miles each day during the break; and then partied before lurching the 6 miles back to the hotel. I ran 20 miles or more each day in a borrowed USA tam sweat suit (Maccabiah Games) with American flag shorts. I had long hair and when asked for autographs (I actually was), signed “Frank Shorter”. Wilt was amused, to say the least. But, we bonded over excitement and drama of the events we were watching.

    Sixteen years later, I received a fabulous invitation from Wilt (thru Lynda, of course). He had purchased the pay for view of the 1992 Olympic track from Barcelona. Did I want to join him at his home, live on Barcelona time, and watch every event (we saw every hammer throw, even in the trials)? You bet I did. It was a wonderful 10 days. Lynda and I lived at Wilt’s home, lived on Barcelona time and watched everything. Among my best memories were arising for the morning session in Barcelona (which was about 2 am LA time). We were in Wilt’s bedroom with the retractable roof. Wilt and Lynda were on his bed relaxing to watch. I was on Wilt’s exercise bike, riding, watching and drinking seltzer. Wilt was amused to say the least. Wilt and Lynda invited former Olympians to watch the final of their specific event with us. We ate great meals (Wilt cooking), lived on Barcelona time, and did our own workouts (led by Lynda in Wilt’s pool). Maybe my favorite moment was watching Olympic hoops with Wilt. We traded analysis of the various teams, games and individual plays. I can remember delivering a serious analysis of some facet of a game while keeping an outward straight face, but laughing so hard on the inside. Here I was talking with arguably the greatest player in history (Mr. Jordan, go to the stat sheet and compare 50 point games; you had 5 of them; Wilt averaged over 50 a game one year!) and he was having to listen to my analysis. Definitely one of life’s highlights.

    It turned out Wilt was a gentle genial intelligent man with a pretty wide variety of interests. I enjoyed my time with Lynda and Wilt.

  9. Linda Langford says:

    Good story made me smile

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