|KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Wilt Chamberlain arrived at Kansas in controversy and left in bitterness.
He was a black kid from back East and much of this area was
still segregated in 1955, including the Kansas City restaurant that
refused to seat him after he had driven all night from
Three years later, one season after Kansas had lost to North
Carolina in triple overtime in the NCAA title game, Kansas fans
were resentful when Chamberlain gave up his senior season and
joined the Harlem Globetrotters.
By then, thanks to Chamberlain, many of the segregation barriers
in the Kansas City area were beginning to come down.
"He was instrumental in helping to integrate public facilities
around here in the late '50s," said Bob Billings, a Lawrence, Kan., businessman and former Kansas teammate.
For 40 years, Chamberlain shunned the school where his
extraordinary career had taken wing, refusing countless invitations
to come back and have his jersey retired. In January 1998, as
Kansas celebrated 100 years of basketball, slightly stooped but
still enormously imposing, Chamberlain donned his 1957 letter
jacket and walked into historic Allen Fieldhouse.
For one of the few times in his adventurous, extraordinary life,
Wilt Chamberlain was scared.
"You just don't know the kind of reception you're going to
get," said Bill Mayer, a retired newspaper executive who had
covered Chamberlain at Kansas.
"I'm not sure," Chamberlain said. "They may boo me."
Instead, they stood on their feet and cheered. Many, including
Wilt, wiped away tears during what everyone agreed was one of the
most emotional days of their lives.
"I'm a Jayhawk and I'm proud to be a part of the tradition here. I'm very proud to be here," he told the cheering throng.
"When he gave that speech and stood out there on the floor
wearing his letter jacket, it was something none of us will ever
forget," Mayer recalled. "As he came off the court, he said to
me, 'That's the greatest thrill I've ever had.' "
Billings recalled the same thing.
"He said, 'Bob, I've had a lot of great days in my life, but
this is the greatest day of my life.' "
When word of his death at age 63 reached Kansas Tuesday, an air of disbelief enveloped the Lawrence campus.
"It was a complete shock," Billings said. "His big body and
heart just gave out. I can't believe the big fellow is gone."
Monte Johnson, another former teammate, had heard that
Chamberlain's health was starting to fail.
"But he was such an amazing physical specimen, it's hard to
believe he's no longer with us," said Johnson, a former athletic
director at Kansas. "He could do things you wouldn't think any one
person could do."
Johnson recalled running laps with Chamberlain after basketball
"We actually got to the point where we would let him run laps
by himself because it was like chasing a deer. He had unbelievable
speed, grace and endurance. None of us could stay up with him. You
knew you were watching a special human being."
Bob Frederick, the current Kansas AD, termed it a "sad day for
Kansas and for basketball fans the world over."
"Wilt probably had a greater influence on the game than any
other person," he said.
Frederick timed how long Chamberlain signed autographs after his
ceremony in 1998.
"He sat there signing for people for three hours and 18
minutes," Frederick said. "There was not one person in the
fieldhouse that day who wanted Wilt's autograph but did not get
For all those who knew him back in those early days, Tuesday was a time to look back.
"Over the last 40 years as I've traveled around the country,
I've met about 500 people who told me they were on that freshman
team with Wilt," Johnson said.
|Chamberlain said making peace with Kansas in 1998 was one of the most emotional events of his life.
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