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Original Issue


It is pretty tough, but just possible, to read 'Wilt' and think, The poor little guy!

In the preface to Wilt-Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door (Macmillan, $6.95), Chamberlain's collaborator, David Shaw, promises us "not just another sports book," and in the sense that this autobiography certainly is not namby-pamby, Shaw and Chamberlain have succeeded. But also, "We wanted a book that would capture and reveal Wilt Chamberlain, the man, as he really is...." In this respect the endeavor may also be a success, but not of the sort the pair intended.

A large part of the problem is that Shaw/Chamberlain obviously believe that depth and meaning may be achieved merely by being "outspoken." But the blustery kind of candor that Wilt too often unloads on us amounts to nothing but sound and fury. And in a terribly forced attempt to make this an "adult" sports book, the reader is asked to endure the most tedious, extraneous accounts of Wilt's sex life, with asides and general observations on the subject so utterly sophomoric that Wilt looms more as some kind of double date than the sex symbol he says he is. (Gee, fellas, Wilt has 10,000 telephone numbers; wow, guys, Wilt went out with Kim Novak!)

To prove how liberated Wilt is, dirty words are sprinkled about to no good use. For this, Shaw and the publishers ought to have their mouths washed out with soap. At times Wilt makes one positively long for those namby-pamby, stylized, I-want-to-thank-all-the-wonderful-people sports books that traditionally dominate the field. One extreme cliché can be as intolerable as another.

On the few occasions when Wilt pauses in his relentless "speaking out," however, the book is instructive and even engaging. His discussion of size is nice (though it doesn't go far enough) and so is a treatise on his foul shooting. The accounts of his 100-point game, of his aborted fight with Muhammad Ali, and of his first ugly year with the Lakers are full of the kind of rich detail that too often comes out in the form of breast-beating and protesting too much.

Of the book's two most revealing passages one is almost an aside, an admission or boast (one cannot be sure which) that he has never in his 37 years had a deep, lasting relationship with any woman: "...I think the longest relationship like that I've ever had was three weeks back in 1967 or '68, with an Australian girl." Wilt observes that people believe him to be a homosexual because he never permits himself to be seen in public with these scores of beauties he is forever ravishing—but sadder, surely, is never to have loved at all.

Another provocative segment is Chamberlain's portrait of himself vis-à-vis President Nixon, whom he supported in 1968, and whom, to distraction, he calls "Richard". (Though it is almost worth it to encounter a line like, "I told Richard, 'You gonna have some problems with Mr. Spiro.' ") Wilt explains, "If I was going to get involved in a political campaign, I wanted to be on the inside ...if Richard won, of course, I figured I'd have some input at the White House...."

Still, Judge Sirica, to say nothing of the rest of us, will be relieved to learn right there on page 204 that Wilt admits to no influence whatsoever over the White House, though he does believe that he and the President are kindred spirits. "Throughout his political career," Wilt writes, "he'd been called a 'loser'—the guy who could never win the big one. Me too. He had been shafted by the press quite a bit. Me too. He had a penchant for beating the other guy at the other guy's game...." And so on.

This is a rare original reflection in a book where philosophy otherwise never exceeds such dusty insights as: Southern California is a very natural place because fewer men wear neckties (do Chinese think all Southern Californians without neckties look alike?). Or: organized religion is just like a business. Or: having sex with the lights off is part of our Puritanical heritage. Or: Wilt Chamberlain should never be a coach because he lacks the proper temperament.

Such chestnuts aside, Wilt is a bottomless pit of braggadocio—anything you can do, I can do better or more of: score more points, run faster, drive further, make more money, be more outspoken. A kind of melancholy—quite unintended—comes to pervade the book as this goes on and on. Every defeat can be measured in some teammate's statistics. Every slur is rebutted with his own monstrous figures. They don't love me if I score the most points, so I'll get the most rebounds, and they still don't love me, so I'll make the most assists.

Even now he has absolutely no comprehension of Bill Russell, his b√™te noire, nor why Russell touches chords Wilt cannot. Chamberlain simply does not understand—or cannot, or will not—that none of the numbers mean anything, except that Russell had his number. Wilt invents the most incredible reasons to account for Russell's greater public eminence; he rails at him, admits he was hurt by him, and at last somehow manages to decide that, "Bill is a shallower man for all his basketball triumphs.... I feel sorry for him."

Finally, between the lines of this book a lonely, frustrated man emerges. This majestic physical specimen seems ultimately a poignant figure, wallowing page after page in his achievements but hopelessly bound, like a Gulliver, by an accumulated webbing of his own limitations and misconceptions.