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 76thbirthday. Seventy-six doesn’t seem old anymore and yet we lost him when he was oh so young at 63.
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.
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.
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.