Even though he left basketball behind in the 1970s, Wilt Chamberlain still looms large as one of the sport’s most dominant players. The big man, thanks to his incredible size and strength, literally towered over the completion, scoring points and pulling down rebounds as if he was on the court alone. And, while he didn’t find the same level of collective success as Bill Russel, Wilt still claimed two NBA championships.
Despite that success, the best moments of Chamberlain’s life didn’t come during his time in the Association. In fact, he eventually came to admit his happiest times after leaving basketball completely behind.
Does that sound a bit jarring? Yes, but it’s also a reminder that, even for athletes, there’s more to life than a single pursuit.
Wilt Chamberlain’s happiest moments came with the Harlem Globetrotters and then in retirement
As fans, it’s easy to imagine that our favorite athletes are living the dream. They, after all, receive fame and fortune for playing a children’s game every few days. Wilt Chamberlain, however, is a reminder that isn’t always the case.
Looking back on the center’s career, there are plenty of moments that would seem like happy memories. Take scoring 100 points in a single game, for example, or winning either of his two NBA titles. When push comes to shove, those occasions didn’t make the cut.
“Not long after [retiring], he published his autobiography, and in it he unequivocally declared that his happiest year had been the one with the Harlem Globetrotters, the one when nobody asked him to break any records, but just to go out there, put his rubber bands on his wrists like always, have fun and help other people enjoy themselves,” Frank Deford explained in a 1986 Sports Illustrated story.
Over time, however, the Big Dipper changed his mind. Once he left basketball completely behind, things only got better.
Is that year with the Globies still your happiest? Wilt drew his bare feet across the tiles. Los Angeles stretched out below him, his great house soaring above. ”Oh, no, my man,” he said with a big smile. ”There’s been 10 great years since then. There’s been 10 straight happier years.”Frank Deford, Sports Illustrated
And there you have it, straight from the man himself. Life only got happier in retirement.
Chamberlain’s comments are a reminder that athletes don’t have to always enjoy their job
As I’ve already mentioned, Chamberlain’s comments can seem a bit jarring. How could an all-time NBA great, who reaped the rewards of his NBA career, find the most happiness in retirement? It may sound cliche to say, but athletes are people, too.
For most fans, playing for our favorite team seems like a dream come true. Through that lens, we build it up as the greatest experience imaginable. Imagine, after all, getting paid millions of dollars to play basketball. For those who are actually facing the daily grind, though, things are a bit different.
Let’s consider Wilt the Stilt as an example. Beyond the physical challenges — remember just how much technology has advanced since his NBA debut in 1959 — the big man always had a target on his back. Some called him selfish and a quitter; others said he was a loser who, for all his points, couldn’t match Bill Russell. No matter how rich and famous you are, that can take a toll.
“Chamberlain was on holiday on the Adriatic in the summer of ’74 when it occurred to him that he would finally hang it up,” Deford wrote. “It wasn’t anything dramatic that made him quit. Good Lord, he could sure still play. (Twelve years later, just this past April, the New Jersey Nets reportedly offered him nearly half a million dollars to play out the last couple weeks of the NBA season — and he was 49 by then.) He didn’t have any special new career plans back in ’74 either. No, there was just one thing: ‘The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was always so much more pain to my losing than there ever was to gain by my winning.'”
Yes, Wilt Chamberlain, for all of his individual success, couldn’t escape the pain of falling short of the ultimate prize.
While this isn’t to suggest that we should shed a tear for professional athletes facing pressure — by the time you reach the big leagues, you know what you’ve signed up for — Chamberlain’s revelation should help connect some dots.
Next time a pro athlete doesn’t seem completely thrilled by life in the spotlight — or maybe not as distraught as you’d like after a big loss — remember Wilt’s quotes.
After all, do you love every single day at your job?