On the surface, Wilt Chamberlain lived a charmed existence. Wilt dominated with the Philadelphia and later San Francisco Warriors, earned his first championship with the Philadelphia 76ers, and finished his career with another title on the Los Angeles Lakers. Chamberlain was an athletic marvel, a ladies’ man, and a legend who made plenty of money along the way.
But before any of that, Chamberlain was a wildly uncomfortable youth just trying to fit in. Unfortunately, that wasn’t so easy, leading to a sorrowful reason why his “Big Dipper” nickname was born.
Wilt Chamberlain lacked confidence early on
Chamberlain was the epitome of cool throughout his professional career and beyond. But it took many years before Wilt the Stilt became a model of confidence.
As a young boy in West Philadelphia, Chamberlain suffered from a stuttering problem. It would follow him through his high school years and even throughout his pro career.
Wilt had three things to overcome,” childhood friend Sonny Hill said in the book Wilt Chamberlain (Sports Heroes and Legends). “He was tall, he was black, and he had a speech impediment.”
Not only that, but Chamberlain had a habit most people drop by the time they hit preschool. The large young man, who grew to 6-foot-3 by eighth grade, sucked his thumb up until high school.
How did Chamberlain earn the nickname ‘The Big Dipper’?
While Wilt the Stilt was a confident player who dominated NBA courts on a nightly basis, “Dipper” was an uncomfortable man trying to blend in. Throughout his youth, Wilt was more of the latter.
Growing upwards of 7-feet by the end of high school, Chamberlain was literally becoming too large for the world around him. Per the Philadelphia Inquirer, Wilt “so often had to diminish himself, ducking beneath rowhouse doorways, [and] slumping in the company of friends to appear more normal.” It led to family and friends calling him Dipper, or the less complimentary “Dippy”.
“He was always slouching over because he was not very proud,” longtime friend John Chaney told the Inquirer. “It was a terrible, terrible thing to be tall because people would pick at you.”
Eventually, Chamberlain became “The Big Dipper” or just “Dip” for short. But those roots stem from being the freakishly tall Dippy.
Wilt Chamberlain still wanted to hide as an adult
As an overgrown teenager, Dippy didn’t enjoy being the first one to know it was raining. But after high school, the world saw more and more of the Stilt, a confident big man who dominated everywhere he played.
Following three seasons at Kansas and a one-year run with the Harlem Globetrotters, Chamberlain entered the NBA and immediately became its superstar player. Wilt led the league in scoring in each of his first six seasons, with the legendary 50.4 point average coming in his third campaign. In total, Chamberlain won seven scoring titles, 11 rebounding titles, and four MVP awards.
Still, flashes from his adolescent days would reveal themselves behind the scenes. In its profile on Wilt, the Philadelphia Inquirer said the big man drove back and forth across America by himself at least 20 times. He was also constantly on the move, changing homes whenever he became too noticed.
“I would never have wanted to be Wilt Chamberlain,” said former teammate Billy Cunningham. “There was no place to hide.”
Chamberlain wound up becoming a Hall of Fame center who’s largely considered one of the best players in basketball history. But The Big Dipper, aka Dippy, spent his entire life just trying to blend in.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.