Often enough, when you see an athlete's byline on a book or magazine article, you have every right to suspect that he was as surprised as you at the contents. Excepting misfits like Jim Brosnan, the former author in the bullpen, athletes are not writers, but they are forever popping up with thousands of words that "ghosts" have put in their mouths. The technique used by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in articulating, first person, an athlete's innermost thoughts is somewhat different. As is the case with the two-part series by Wilt Chamberlain that begins on page 32, it is accomplished through long hours of interviews, taped or hand-recorded, between the athlete and the writer; through close contact over an extended period of time; and through thorough editing sessions at which the athlete can make sure that this is what he wants to say and the way he wants to say it. He then shares the byline so there will be no doubt that he has a Boswell.
The Boswell for Wilt Chamberlain in this series was Associate Editor Bob Ottum, and their exhaustive sessions of talk and listen went on for several weeks. They began in New York's Penn Station where curious crowds stared at the 7-foot-plus Chamberlain and dared only to ask the 5-foot-7 Ottum, "Who's he?" Ottum said he thought it was Mickey Rooney. There were almost daily train rides between New York and Philadelphia (Wilt lives in one city, works in the other). For the first trip Chamberlain brought a battered brown paper bag from which he produced two cartons of milk, a large container of orange juice, a dozen sweet rolls and a barbecued chicken. "Because of my diet," Wilt told Bob, "I eat several meals a day but not too much at a time." He then ripped the chicken in half and divvied up the rolls.
On evening forays to favorite nightclubs Chamberlain, who does not drink, ordered orange juice so it would appear he was having a screwdriver. Ottum added a hooker of vodka so that he was having a screwdriver. Chamberlain, Ottum found, designs his own clothes, which run to glossy imported silk shirts, deeply notched at the cuff and embroidered "The Big Dipper." But on one wrist he always wears a rubber band, a habit from the days when he used to need a spare to hold up his socks. He carries change in all his pockets and large-denomination bills in a crumpled brown envelope. He talks in a fast-flowing early bop, with surprising bursts of erudition. "And he punctuates," says Ottum, "with emphasized words that sound like spoken italics." Chamberlain's bed in his New York apartment is seven feet square; when he is on the road he curls up on an undersized double bed and watches television most of the night, periodically ordering snacks from room service. Ottum, who tried to stick with Wilt through it all, checked out on the story weighing 130 pounds. He is now up to 141. "It's not the constant travel or long hours that murder you on a story like this," said Ottum, "it's those damned snacks."
BOB OTTUM AND CO-AUTHOR