It's a question no son can feel comfortable asking his mother.
Hey, Mom, when you and Wilt Chamberlain were on campus together
at Kansas, did you ever ... uh ... hang out?
To say that Wilt the Stilt was the BMOC, Kansas division, circa
1957, is an epic understatement. He tooled around Lawrence in a
white Oldsmobile convertible with the vanity plate BIG DIPPER. He
consumed dinner spreads fit for a platoon at Mom's Meals, an
eatery on 11th and Vermont, mesmerizing his classmates. And when
he scored 52 points against Northwestern in his varsity
basketball debut, well, the students stomped their feet and
refused to leave Allen Fieldhouse. "We'd never seen anything like
him," says my dad, a Mom's Meals regular himself.
The women loved Wilt, of course. As preposterous as his claim of
20,000 female conquests sounds, his mammoth appetites in those
days--for points, food and women--made almost anything seem
attainable. And while it was probably better not to ponder such
things, part of me inevitably wondered: Wilt? Mom?
The thing is, we Kansans can't avoid having intimate relations,
literal and otherwise, with Jayhawks basketball. (Not even those
tractor-pulling K-Staters, perpetrators of that classy "F--- KU!"
chant, are excused.) Blame Doc Naismith, the game's inventor and
the first Kansas coach, the only one to have a losing record.
(Imagine the static he got on the call-in shows!) Blame Wilt,
Clyde Lovellette and Danny Manning, the Holy Trinity of KU
greats. And by all means, blame Phog Allen, Larry Brown and Roy
Williams, architects of a lore that includes 12 Final Fours and
two national titles.
Me, I blame Max Falkenstien the most. As a kid I'd lie in bed
listening to Max, the voice of the Jayhawks, whose Brokaw-flat
lullabies had the same effect on a 14-year-old as Barry White's
baritone would a few years later. Simply put, Max was a sports
aphrodisiac--and still is, mind you, at 79, in his 58th straight
season, the longest streak of any current basketball announcer,
college or pro.
The only thing better than tuning in Max is finding your way
inside Allen Fieldhouse. Like a 19th-century Chautauqua, a night
in the packed old barn unites Kansans in a timeless scene
redolent of buttered popcorn and mindful of populist tradition,
whether you're belting out the eerily cool Rock Chalk chant,
theatrically reading newspapers during the opponents' intros or
heaving students into the air to punctuate the Hey! song.
Kansans are well aware of their tastes. We don't like fancy-pants
East Coast writers who stuff Wizard of Oz jokes into every
Jayhawks story, as if we live on some sort of stage set, nor are
we fond of that finger-pointin', booty-shakin', taunting nonsense
from a player who has scored a basket. (Just run back down the
court, son, and play some defense.) Scrap hard, D up and pass the
ball, though, and you'll have our everlasting gratitude. There's
a reason why so many former Kansas stars still live in and around
See, history matters in these parts. My parents can tell you
their exact whereabouts on the night of the 1957 NCAA final. My
mom, a grad student, was at the game in Kansas City's Municipal
Auditorium, while my dad, a freshman, was right next door at the
Music Hall, racked with nerves, fidgeting through a performance
of Carmen. He couldn't bear to know what was going on, yet he
hoped his proximity would somehow bring good karma to the team.
(It didn't, of course. In perhaps the greatest college game ever,
Wilt's Jayhawks fell to North Carolina in three overtimes.)
Funny how things come full circle. Professional detachment may
have thinned my Jayhawks blood--sad to say, I attended college
elsewhere--but I finally swallowed my pride and popped the Wilt
question to my mom a while back. After a four-decade-long
absence, Wilt had returned to a hero's welcome in Lawrence in
January 1998. He'd taken the blame for the '57 loss, and it only
seemed right that he went to his grave knowing an entire state
was still smitten with the Big Dipper. No, he and my sweet mother
never hooked up, but that's not the point. The point, as Wilt
himself learned that glorious day, is this: Sometimes platonic
love can be the best kind.
SI senior writer Grant Wahl grew up in Mission, Kans.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO