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Jim & Wilt Chamberlain:
Their unlikely trip together
to basketball's Hall of Fame

 

 

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basketball + tapeWILT & I:
Separated by 362 miles, one Friday
night permanently links this odd couple that never met in person.

by Jim Trelease © 2006

In order for great astrophysical events to occur—eclipses, storms, etc.—it is said there must be a grand alignment of planets or stars. Some take the concept further and declare that human events are guided by such heavenly alignments. If that be true, then more than a few planets had to be aligned for Wilt Chamberlain and I to be linked kneecap to shoulder in the Basketball Hall of Fame, as we are.

For that to happen, there had to be these alignments on the evening of March 2, 1962:

  • It had to be a Friday night and I had to be residing in a dormitory on the highest point on the campus of the University of Massachusetts.
  • My first-floor dorm room had to be equipped with steam pipes that snaked skyward to the fifth-floor.
  • My transistor radio had to be tuned to WCAU-AM that night and I had to wake at midnight in time to hear the announcer reciting a synopsis of the evening's sports news
  • My girlfriend had to have loaned me her tape recorder for that semester.
  • And at a dinner party nearly 30 years later, I had to be seated beside a trustee of the Hershey (Pennsylvania) Community Archives.

All of those factors together put me in the Hall of Fame with Wilt Chamberlain. If any one of those factors had been missing, my only way into the Hall would be to pay my way.

Wilt and I first "met" back in late November 1956, a meeting that carried significant hints for our future together, or at least my future. I was fifteen years old and had moved with my family that summer from New Jersey to Springfield, Massachusetts when my father was transferred with his job. When he told my brothers and me about the prospective move, we looked up Springfield in the encyclopedia and discovered it was the birthplace of basketball. Dr. James Naismith had invented the game at Springfield College back in 1891. My brothers and I immediately okayed the move, figuring it would be a big sports town.

basketball hall of fame1basketball hall of famespacer   We were right, although the city's romance with sports would wane considerably in the years that followed. The first thing we did in Springfield, even before eating our first breakfast, was to buy a newspaper and check out the sports section. Little did I realize that in seven years I'd be working for that newspaper. I also didn't realize at the time that a small contingent of coaches and local businessmen were working to build a hall of fame for basketball that would be born 12 years later, just ten blocks from the house my family and I were moving into. (It's now proudly in its third location, and state-of-the-art, photo left.)

As the school year opened, I found myself in a large urban parochial high school, Cathedral, where I didn't know a single classmate, a painful contrast with the small high school I'd left in North Plainfield, New Jersey, where I knew almost everyone.

Post cover3Post cover 2Post cover 1spacerMy anonymity would soon end, thanks to Wilt Chamberlain. Students in my English class were expected to give an oral presentation and by the end of November it was my turn. My family was a long-time subscriber to The Saturday Evening Post and a cover story in that week's issue was entitled, "Can Basketball Survive Wilt Chamberlain?"

The date was December 1, 1956 and it offers a striking contrast with the world we live in today. The seven-foot, one-inch Chamberlain was about to begin his college basketball career at the University of Kansas after a dominating four years at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia where he became the most sought-after schoolboy in America. But to most people in America (including my classmates), he was unknown. Sports Illustrated was less than two years old, there was no CNN, ESPN, or SportsCenter, all-sports-all-the-time back then, talk radio hadn't been invented and thus the ubiquitous radio sports call-in shows were still years away. So except to a small number of die-hard fans and coaches, "Wilt" was something flowers did when they didn't get enough water.

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