While sports fans have had the privilege to watch plenty of talented NBA players over the years, few stars loomed larger than Wilt Chamberlain. In addition to being a physically massive man, the center had no problem talking a big game. Everything from athletic prowess to his romantic exploits was a chance for him to show off. Behind the scenes, though, Wilt the Stilt could be a different man.
Take, for example, a relationship the big man struck up in the late 1990s. After receiving a letter from the dying granddaughter of an NBA legend, Chamberlain spent an entire year quietly lending her his companionship.
Wilt Chamberlain was larger than life in just about every sense of the phrase
These days, there’s nothing unusual about a star athlete making headlines with their outsized personality. Chamberlain, however, took things to a whole new level.
In the more literal sense of “larger than life,” Wilt towered over the competition at 7-foot-1. While that might not seem too outlandish by modern NBA standards, it allowed the center to dominate the competition. During 14 professional seasons, he averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds per outing. He probably blocked a great deal of shots, too, but those weren’t officially recorded at the time.
While those numbers understandably bred plenty of on-court confidence, Chamberlain wasn’t limited to the hardwood. He was an exceptional athlete, capable of running, playing football, and excelling at volleyball with equal ease. It’s also possible that he performed various feats of strength, like fighting off a mountain lion with his bare hands, if you believe the stories.
More infamously, Wilt also boasted about his sexual exploits. In a well-documented claim, the center said he had slept with more than 20,000 women in his life.
On the whole, though, Chamberlain was regarded as an upstanding character who simply knew how to play a role.
“While Wilt came off as an egotistical, womanizing, superhuman through his media persona, he was actually a cool guy with me,” former volleyball player Jon Stevenson explained, according to Volleyball Magazine.
The center quietly supported a dying girl for more than a year
Every celebrity, especially one as famous as Wilt Chamberlain, is bound to receive plenty of fan mail. While he originally missed a letter from a young girl, the center eventually made things right in the sweetest way.
As documented in a 2019 Philadelphia Inquirer story, the grandaughter of Basketball Hall of Famer Paul Arizin wrote Wilt a letter in 1993. The big man didn’t see the letter until several years later but called the girl and shared a pleasant conversation. By that time, things had changed.
Stephanie was 16 and had an inoperable brain tumor. Although she didn’t tell Chamberlain about her problem, the NBA legend learned of her condition. According to Stephanie’s father, “from the time they first spoke, Wilt called Steph every Friday night for the rest of her life.”
Jim Barnett also shared his own version of events in an archived episode of Warriors Roundtable. He explained that, in addition to calling Stephanie every Friday night, Chamberlain also took her to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team celebration and scored her an autograph from Bill Russell, who had stopped signing by the time. Wilt, it seems, explained that it was for “his friend,” and the Celtics legend complied.
“That’s the kind of guy [Chamberlain] was,” Barnett explained. “And he didn’t make any fanfare about it, no one knew about it. He did this on his own because he cared. He was compassionate.”
That isn’t the only story that speaks to Wilt Chamberlain and his character
While Chamberlain’s interactions with Stephanie paint the picture of a gentle giant rather than an oversized egotist, you could cynically write them off as an isolated series of events. Maybe Wilt was struck by the gravity of the situation. Perhaps he felt so bad about waiting to answer the letter that he was compelled to go above and beyond the call of duty. Other anecdotes, however, suggest that wasn’t the case.
As noted in an ESPN excerpt of Wilt: 1962, the big man’s generosity became clear during his early days with the Harlem Globetrotters. While Wilt needed a bit of encouragement to stand out on the court, he was happy to share behind the scenes. “He reveled in the camaraderie with teammates,” Gary M. Pomerantz wrote. On bus trips, he was known to open two cans of salmon, two loaves of bread, and two cartons of milk and pass them around.”
At the opposite end of his career, Chamberlain kept up that habit, albeit it from a more modern perspective.
“When we were in college [in Hawaii], we used to go down to the Hilton. There was a group of four of us. My roommate and me and another guy, and Wilt would come down and wed play doubles,” former volleyball player John Hanley recalled, according to Volleyball Magazine. “And the great thing about it was that out of nowhere some sandwiches would show up or a bunch of soft drinks or some beers for everybody who was playing.”
While Hanley believed a man named Herm was taking pity on the college students, it turned out Chamberlain had been footing the bill for two years. “He made it clear that he didn’t want anybody knowing where it was coming from,” Hanley added.
If you only read some select quotes, Wilt Chamberlain seemed like a massive man with an even larger ego. The anecdotes from those who knew him, however, show a softer side to the gentle giant.
Sta courtesy of Basketball-Reference