This is 2013. Wilt would have LOVED this year – he loved all things 13. Today is his birthday and it’s time once again to honor Wilt and tell more stories of the twenty-eight years I hung out with him.
From the time I met Wilt Chamberlain in 1971 until his death in 1999, he was the central reference point in my life. I loved him; I was annoyed by him. I did things for him; I did things in spite of him – no matter how I said it, my life revolved around Wilt. It didn’t matter what other loving men I met, they never seemed important enough for me to give up Wilt. Well, at least not for good. Twice I swore I’d never see him again. Once it lasted a year. Another time it lasted two years. But then we would somehow cross paths and feel so comfortable with each other again that there we were again.
Our sports lives ran parallel through the beach volleyball and track worlds while our relationship meandered through every possible twist and turn. He was my “family.” For nearly three decades, I often felt as though I were married to a bachelor.
He came to San Jose for a track meet and stayed at my place. The make-shift bed kept his foot from hanging off the end.
Wilt hated official holidays. It was darn-near impossible to get him to commit to doing anything on a day others were celebrating a holiday.
“Want to drive up to Santa Barbara for the long week-end?” I would ask.
He would grunt. “Be on the road with a million other people? You can do it.”
But as much as he avoided the so-called “real” holidays, he loved making his own. How about a Bel Air film festival at his place? Everyone bring their favorite film (on VHS in those days) and we watched one after another for two days. Since Wilt didn’t sleep much, he was always looking for something to do during those hours that others did sleep (count me in that group). Someone would always take the bait and stay awake all night watching movies with him while he dozed a few hours here and there.
Thanksgiving was about the only holiday he really liked. The first year that my then-roommate Patty Van Wolvelaere and I had Turkey Day with Wilt, it turned into a three-day feast. Wiltie was a great cook, especially meats, so it was his chance to show off for both of us. Ham the first day, steak the next, and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around we’d gotten in shape for eating big meals and were ready to devour the turkey. But while it was cooking, we created an annual sporting event. We decided to time ourselves running up the steep driveway that was a little more than a quarter of a mile from Mulholland Drive to the flat opening outside Wilt’s gate. I went first since I knew I was going to be slowest. Let them clip time off the goal I set. It was a grueling, tough pseudo-sprint for me, because I never raced anything longer than 200M. Patty, the American record-holder in the hurdlers, knocked ten seconds off my time, then Wilt powered up the hill as if he were used to doing it. No doubt he was since he would run his dogs in the neighborhood. Champion was Wiltie. And every year the champion was Wiltie.
He didn’t like people giving him a lot of attention on his birthday, so he often told people it was a different day. The first year I knew him, he told me his birthday was the 18th, not the 21st. For years I thought his birthday was August 18thbefore I heard it on the radio to set me straight.
The Olympic Track & Field Trials are often held in Eugene, Oregon. Wilt and I went to them several times together. The first time I got press credentials for both of us from Sport magazine. They ran my article under the title, “The World’s Tallest Reporter.”
We enjoyed the shade in the press box and someone delivering results to us on sheets of paper immediately after each race. After the morning heats and quarter-final races there was a long lunch break. Wilt and I both needed powerful workouts, so I took him to the racquetball courts behind the stadium. I’d brought two racquets and a ball and watched him wrestle with the confines of that narrow court. At first he couldn’t hit anything. It was as if he were swatting at flies and missing. I’d never been able to out-do him at anything, so this was BIG fun for me. I even ducked between his legs to make one play and that totally infuriated him. Then he got off a few good shots and that encouraged him. He liked the great sweat we could get quickly on the court and stuck with this new game.
The second day on the courts I knew he was already hooked on what would be his new sport. So I didn’t take it easy on him anymore. I’d been playing for two years by then and had played with Washington Redskins players Frank Grant and George Starke. Both were agile, fast, and had some great shots. They usually beat me, but I certainly improved my game playing them and won just often enough to get some laughs. With Wilt, I started hitting kills shots that he clearly admired. I’d seldom been the recipient of compliments from this ruff, tough guy, but here they were coming left and right. I beat him 21-Zip making sure not to laugh, even though it was funny to me. He bounced right back again.
“Serve it up,” he demanded. He wanted a chance for a come-back.
We played every day for the eight days of the Trials and Wilt was starting to get the game. I could no longer get the ball over his head and I couldn’t go down his backhand wall with my shot, because he’d change hands and hit the ball left-handed with a forehand shot. He was starting to chuckle and smile. The only shot that would guarantee a point was a kill shot low on the front wall. His knees didn’t bend well quickly enough to get him down there. So that became my go-to shot when I needed a point.
In three months, Sport magazine published my brief article, which was mostly about me teaching Wilt to play racquetball. Wilt had retired from the NBA only a few years before and sports fans were still so mesmerized by Wilt that I knew he would be a more interesting story to the magazine than almost anything else I could have written. I mentioned my 21-0 win and Wilt absolutely howled with denial.
“You didn’t skunk me! You know you never beat me that bad!” But I had been there. I knew I had. If I’d had better discretion when I was 29, I would not have embarrassed him by gloating like that. But he got over it. He went to Hawaii every winter and played at the Central YMCA for hours. When he came back every Spring he was incredibly better. By the third year, I could barely play with him. By the fourth year, he had to play me left-handed for me to stay in the game.
Tomorrow I’m off to Nice, Cannes, Portofino, and Paris in that order. It’s a trip that Wilt would have loved to take with me and my friend Cinde. Cinde didn’t come with us when we rented Villa di Nave on the Amalfi Coast in 1993, so twenty years later she and I are bringing a photo of the three of us on this trip to Villa Ucelli in Portofino. Wilt was a great world traveler, and he and I took many international trips together. We both moved fast and thought fast, and that was the only way he could have a traveling companion. Wilt will be everywhere as we travel. As we rise up the escalators in an airport, I’ll remember hearing two normally tall Italian men watch Wilt rising higher and higher as he got to the top where they were standing. “Attenzione! Attenzione! Mama Mia! Mama Mia!” Then they had nothing more they could say. Their jaws had dropped and they simply stared as we walked past.
He was definitely larger than life in so many ways.
Happy Birthday, Wiltie!
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.