Personal life of Wilt Chamberlain

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Star status[edit]

Wilt Chamberlain was the first big earner of basketball: his 1959 $30,000 rookie contract was $5,000 more than the previous best earner, Celtics star guard Bob Cousy.[1] He was basketball's first player to earn more than $100,000 a year, and earned an unprecedented $1.5 million during his Lakers years.[2] As a Philadelphia player, he could afford to rent a New York apartment and commute to Philadelphia.[3] In addition, he would often stay out late into the night and wake up at noon,[4] a point that became notorious in the 1965–66 NBA season.[citation needed]

When he became a Laker, Chamberlain built a million-dollar mansion he called the "Ursa Major" in Bel-Air, as a play on his nickname "The Big Dipper". It had a 2,200-pound pivot as a front door and contained great displays of luxury. Robert Allen Cherry, journalist and author of the biography Wilt: Larger than Life, describes his house as a miniature Playboy Mansion, where he regularly held parties and lived out his later-notorious sex life. This was also helped by the fact that Chamberlain was a near-insomniac who often simply skipped sleeping.[5] Designed according to his preferences, the house was constructed with no right angles, and had an "X-rated" room with mirrored walls and a fur-covered waterbed.[6] Chamberlain lived alone, relying on a great deal of automated gadgets, with two cats named Zip and Zap and several Great Dane dogs as company. In addition, Chamberlain drove a Ferrari, a Bentley, and had a Le Mans-style car called Searcher One designed and built at a cost of $750,000 in 1996.[7] Following his death, in 2000 Chamberlain's estate was valued at $25 million.[8]

Friendships and rivalries[edit]

Although Cherry points out that Chamberlain was an egotist, he added that he had good relationships with many contemporaries and enjoyed a great deal of respect. He was especially lauded for his good rapport with his fans, often providing tickets and signing autographs. Dr. Jack Ramsay recalled that Chamberlain regularly took walks in downtown Philadelphia and acknowledged honking horns with the air of a man enjoying all the attention.[9] Jerry West called him a "complex... very nice person",[10] and NBA rival Jack McMahon even said: "The best thing that happened to the NBA is that God made Wilt a nice person... he could have killed us all with his left hand."[11] Celtics contemporary Bob Cousy even assumed that if Chamberlain had been less fixated on being popular, he would have been meaner and able to win more titles.[12]

During most of his NBA career, Chamberlain was good friends with Bill Russell. Chamberlain often invited Russell over to Thanksgiving, and at Russell's place, conversation mostly concerned Russell's electric trains.[13] But as the championship count became increasingly lopsided, the relationship got strained, and turned hostile after Russell accused Chamberlain of "copping out" in the notorious Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals.[13] The two men did not talk to each other for over 20 years, until Russell apologized privately, then publicly in a 1997 joint interview with Bob Costas: "There was a thing almost 30 years ago... I was wrong."[13] Still, Chamberlain maintained a level of bitterness, regretted that he should have been "more physical" with Russell in their games and privately continued accusing his rival for "intellectualizing" basketball in a negative way.[13]

More hostile was Chamberlain's relationship to fellow Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, ten years his junior. Although Abdul-Jabbar idolized him as a teenager and was once part of his inner circle,[14] the student/mentor bond deteriorated into intense mutual loathing, especially after Chamberlain retired. Chamberlain often criticized Abdul-Jabbar for a perceived lack of scoring, rebounding and defense, although Cherry points out that Abdul-Jabbar is virtually peerless regarding scoring, rebounding and call-ups to the NBA All-Defensive Teams.[15] As an admirer of Malcolm X and a supporter of black nationalist movements and the Nation of Islam, Abdul-Jabbar accused Chamberlain of being a traitor to the black race for his Republican political leanings, support of Richard Nixon, and relationships with white women.[15] When Jabbar broke Chamberlain's all-time scoring record in 1984, matters had improved, but after that, Chamberlain repeatedly called on him to retire and accused him of not playing up to the level of his physical abilities. When Abdul-Jabbar published his autobiography in 1990, he retaliated by writing a paper titled "To Wilt Chumperlane [sic]" in which he stated "Now that I am done playing, history will remember me as someone who helped teammates to win, while you will be remembered as a crybaby, a loser, and a quitter." Their relationship remained mostly strained until the end.[15] However, in an interview in 1993, Chamberlain told Bob Costas that if he were to see Abdul-Jabbar today he "wouldn't feel any real animosity towards him," because he felt that Abdul-Jabbar was simply "venting a little anger, and saying something he really doesn't mean."


Chamberlain denounced the Black Panthers and other black nationalist movements in the late 1960s, and supported Republican Richard Nixon in the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections.[16] Chamberlain accompanied Nixon to the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.[17]

Love life and “20,000 women” claim[edit]

Although shy and insecure as a teenager, adult Chamberlain became well known for his womanizing. As his lawyer Seymour "Sy" Goldberg put it: "Some people collect stamps, Wilt collected women."[5] Swedish Olympic high jumper Annette Tånnander, who met him when he was 40 and she 19, remembers him as a pick-up artist who was extremely confident yet respectful: "I think Wilt hit on everything that moved...[but] he never was bad or rude."[5] Many of Chamberlain's personal friends testified[citation needed] that he once had 23 women in 10 days, had no problems organizing a threesome (or more), and particularly enjoyed a TV skit on the show In Living Color in which a mother and her daughter approach a Vietnam Wall-like list of women who slept with him, both of them pointing out that their names are on it, as well as a 1991 Saturday Night Live sketch where MC Hammer played Chamberlain in "Remembrances of Love", where Chamberlain spoofs a soap opera with romances with women that are usually over in five minutes.[5] However, Los Angeles Times columnist David Shaw claimed that during a dinner with Shaw and his wife, Chamberlain was “rude and sexist toward his own date, as he usually was,” adding that at one point Chamberlain left the table to get the phone number of an attractive woman at a nearby table.[18]

According to Rod Roddewig, a contemporary of Wilt's, the 20,000 number was created when he and Chamberlain were staying in Chamberlain's penthouse in Honolulu during the mid-1980s. He and Chamberlain stayed at the penthouse for 10 days, over the course of which he recorded everything on his Daytimer.[clarification needed] For every time Chamberlain went to bed with a different girl he put a check in his daytimer. After those 10 days there were 23 checks in the book, which would be rate of 2.3 women per day. He divided that number in half, to be conservative and to correct for degrees of variation. He then multiplied that number by the number of days he had been alive at the time minus 15 years. That was how the 20,000 number came into existence.[19]

Chamberlain also seemed to be fond of throwing around the number 20,000 in describing a large amount of people. In his first autobiography Wilt (ghostwriter David Shaw), he talks of his 100-point game, and remarks that though there were only a few thousand in attendance, there must have been "20,000" people that told him that they saw it live.

In a 1999 interview shortly before his death, Chamberlain regretted not having explained the sexual climate at the time of his escapades, and warned other men who admired him for it, closing with the words: "With all of you men out there who think that having a thousand different ladies is pretty cool, I have learned in my life I've found out that having one woman a thousand different times is much more satisfying."[20] Chamberlain also acknowledged that he never came close to marrying and had no intention of raising any children.[21]

Cherry believes that Chamberlain's extreme sex drive was fueled by the female rejection he had experienced as a teenager, causing him to overcompensate.[5] His lifelong friend and on-and-off girlfriend, Lynda Huey, eleven years his junior, said: "He had an inability of combining friendship and sexuality."[22] Shaw added: "Wilt never liked to admit a weakness ... [but] you cannot be married and be Superman ... you cannot appear invulnerable to your mate."[23]


Chamberlain had a history of heart trouble. He was hospitalized for three days following an irregular heartbeat, and in 1999, his condition deteriorated rapidly. During this time, he lost 50 pounds.[24] After undergoing dental surgery in the week before his death, he was in great pain and seemed unable to recover from the stress. On October 12, 1999, Chamberlain died in Bel-Air, California, at the age of 63.[25] He was cremated.[26] His agent Sy Goldberg stated Chamberlain died of congestive heart failure, and for about a month, doctors had been draining his legs of fluid that had accumulated because of the heart problem. He was outlived by his sisters Barbara Lewis, Margaret Lane, Selina Gross and Yvonne Chamberlain, and brothers Wilbert and Oliver Chamberlain.[25]

NBA players and officials were saddened at the loss of a player they universally remembered as a symbol of the sport. His lifelong on-court rival and personal friend Bill Russell stated "the fierceness of our competition bonded us together for eternity", and Celtics coach Red Auerbach praised Chamberlain as vital for the success of the entire NBA. Ex-Lakers teammate Jerry West remembered him as an utterly dominant, yet friendly and humorous player, and fellow Hall-of-Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnny Kerr, Phil Jackson and Wes Unseld called Chamberlain one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. He was one of the happiest individuals they had the pleasure of meeting.[27]


  1. ^ Cherry, 89.
  2. ^ Cherry, 207.
  3. ^ (2007-02-10). "Wilt was Philadelphia's greatest athlete". Retrieved 2008-01-26. 
  4. ^ Lawrence, Mitch (2007-02-10). "Chamberlain's feats the stuff of legend". Retrieved 2008-01-27. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Cherry, 343–356.
  6. ^ "The House that Wilt Built". Life. 1973-03-24. pp. 58–63. Retrieved 28 August 2013. 
  7. ^ Bierman, Fred (2006-12-24). "N.B.A. Accessorizing: Supersize My Ride". The New York Times. 
  8. ^ O'Neil, Ann (2000-04-16). "A Full-Court Press to Regain Late Basketball Great's Items". La Times. 
  9. ^ Wilt's spirit was larger than life
  10. ^ Cherry, vii-viii.
  11. ^ Cherry, 85.
  12. ^ Cherry, 362.
  13. ^ a b c d Cherry, 360–361.
  14. ^ Cherry, 130–131.
  15. ^ a b c Cherry, 245.
  16. ^ Wilt Chamberlain - The Warrior
  17. ^ Simeon Booker (January 1969), "What Blacks Can Expect From Nixon", Ebony: 27 
  18. ^ Shaw, David (October 13, 1999). "A Gracious Man, but Driven to Win". The Los Angeles Times. 
  19. ^ Cherry, 348.
  20. ^ (2007-02-10). "Wilt spoke of regrets, women and Meadowlark". Retrieved 2008-01-27. 
  21. ^ Deford, Frank (2007-02-10). "Just doing fine, my man". CNN. Retrieved 2008-01-26. 
  22. ^ Cherry, 319.
  23. ^ Cherry, 340–342.
  24. ^ Mirkin, Gabe. "STD's, Cardiomyopathy and Wilt Chamberlain". Retrieved 2009-03-02. 
  25. ^ a b (2007-02-10). "Chamberlain towered over NBA". Retrieved 2008-01-26. 
  26. ^ Wilt Chamberlain
  27. ^ (2007-02-10). "Reaction to a basketball legend's death". Retrieved 2008-01-26. 

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