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This comprehensive biography of one of the greatest basketball players, and all-around athletes, of all time is largely driven by Robert Cherry's fear that Wilt Chamberlain is in danger of being remembered only for two numbers, the 100 points he scored in a game against the Knicks and the 20,000 women the big man claimed to have bedded. The author and his sister attended the same Philadelphia high school as the star, he just after, she at the same time. And after Wilt's death, upon reading about how he had called former teammate Paul Arizin's terminally ill granddaughter every Friday night as she was dying, Mr Cherry decided that someone needed to tell the rest of the story (stories) about this maddeningly complex figure.

The resulting book, driven by the astonishing amount of research the author conducted, gives us the definitive portrait of not just the basketball player Wilt Chamberlain but of the driven, sensitive, braggadocious, loyal, humorous, intelligent (and you can keep adding adjectives ad infinitum) human being. Indeed, to some extent basketball becomes a mere background to the story of the man, as perhaps--on this telling--it should. After all, one need only look at the record books to see how ridiculously dominant Wilt was as a player. Consider only the season when he had that 100:
[I]t is what Chamberlain accomplished in 1961-62 that likely will never be surpassed. That's when he averaged 48.5 minutes (the Warriors played 10 overtime periods and he played all but eight of 3,890 minutes that season) and 50.4 points, becoming the only player to crack the 4,000-point barrier (he had 4,029).
The book is filled with stories about Wilt's strength and athleticism--his first love was track and field--that made such numbers possible.

But what sort of inner drive fueled such feats and how could such a transcendent talent come to be both labeled a loser by others and allow such silliness to affect him personally? Here, the biographer excels, because the central fact of Wilt's life seems to have been his otherness. The other day, on ESPN radio, Dan Patrick was discussing Bill Walton and how that big man always claims to be 6' 11" because seven-footers seem like freaks. Mind you, this is 60 years later, with the NBA rife with giants. Even more poignantly, Wilt came of age in an America where blacks still faced immense hostility and Jim Crow laws. The stories about the prejudice he faced even in a non-Southern college town--Lawrence, KS--are an important reminder that Jackie Robinson wasn't the only athlete to blaze civil rights trails.

Likewise, many of the closest relationships in his life were with Jewish men (and their wives and families). The Philadelphia Warriors owned his rights under the NBA's old regional assignment policy, and owner Eddie Gottlieb became a friend. Wilt worked summers in the Catskills for Milton Kutscher and not only did he remain lifelong friends with the family but returned regularly for the Maurice Stokes All-Star Games. Even as his health was failing, Wilt made one last visit in August 1999, traveling from L.A. despite his edema. One wonders if a strong part of his attraction wasn't just the hard-working qualities he admired in these men but a shared sense of being eternal outsiders.

Finally, if it was the particular story of the time and tenderness that Wilt gave to one little girl that was the genesis of this book, Mr. Cherry reveals so many other instances of Wilt's generosity and cultivation of personal relationships that you can see why he thinks it would be a shame for the man to be remembered for a shallow and off hand boast about sexual prowess. By giving us the man in full, the author shows us how much bigger he was than any two numbers.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Sports (General)
Robert Cherry Links:

    -BOOK SITE: Wilt : Larger than Life by Robert Cherry (Triumph Books)
    -PROFILE: Local Writer Tackles His Own History, And That Of The Immigrant Community, In New Memoir (John Ostapkovich, 7/19/14, PHILADELPHIA-CBS)
    -INTERVIEW: Q&A: Wilt Chamberlain biographer Robert Cherry: The Wynnewood author watched Chamberlain from afar at Overbrook High School, but Cherry's 2004 book, Wilt: Larger Than Life, is an insightful look at the legend's personal life, career and enduring legacy. (J.F. Pirro, March 2012, Maine Today)
    -ESSAY: Wilt Chamberlain’s Jewish role models (Robert Gluck, October 13, 2013,
    -ESSAY: Wilt Chamberlain Is the Greatest Philadelphian of All Time: Benjamin Franklin sucked at basketball. The Big Dipper is the greatest polymath this town’s ever seen. (Dan McQuade, November 6, 2013, Philadelphia)
    -ESSAY: Wilt Chamberlain Worked To Tower Above NBA Competition (MICHAEL MINK, 3/13/15, Investor's Business Daily)
    -ESSAY: Wilt Chamberlain comes home (MARK PERNER, January 25, 2013, Philadelphia Daily News)
    -ESSAY: Ball Busters (Justin Kendall, 9/08/05,
    -ESSAY: Negritude 2.0 : In the Time of B.K. (Before Kobe) (Mark Reynolds 8, January 2006, Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW: of Wilt: Larger Than Life by Robert Cherry (Basketbawful)
-REVIEW: of Wilt (Bill Mayer, KU Sports)

Book-related and General Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA : Wilt Chamberlain
    -AUDIO: Wilt's Big Night : Sports history was made on March 2, 1962. Basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in one game. But the moment would be lost to all but memory if not for one resourceful college student. Weekend America host Bill Radke talks with Jim Trelease about the story behind the one-of-a-kind recording of a remarkable quarter in NBA history. (American Public Media, June 4, 2005)
    -ESSAY: Wilt battled 'loser' label (Larry Schwartz,
[I]t is what Chamberlain accomplished in 1961-62 that likely will never be surpassed. That's when he averaged 48.5 minutes (the Warriors played 10 overtime periods and he played all but eight of 3,890 minutes that season) and 50.4 points, becoming the only player to crack the 4,000-point barrier (he had 4,029).

Chamberlain scored 78 points in one game (a three-overtime contest) and 73 points a month later. Though these were the two highest scoring games in NBA history, they were merely warm-up acts. On March 2, 1962, Chamberlain scored 100 in a 169-147 victory over the Knicks at Hershey, Pa. After scoring 41 points in the first half, Chamberlain scored 28 in the third period and 31 in the fourth. He made 36 of 63 field-goal attempts and, incredibly, converted 28 of 32 foul shots.

    -ESSAY: WILT: The Ultimate All-Star (Scott Ostler, February 2000, SF Chronicle)
    -ESSAY: Chamberlain's feats the stuff of legend (Mitch Lawrence,
    -ESSAY: Wilt Chamberlain: Human And Superhuman (Gary M. Pomerantz, 3/01/12, Yahoo Sports)
    -ARTICLE: Wilt spoke of regrets, women and Meadowlark (Associated Press, 10/12/99)
    -ARTICLE: The night Wilt scored 100 (The Associated Press, March 2, 1962)
    -ESSAY: Wilt: 'I maybe could have scored 140' (Bill Barnard, 10/12, 1987, The Associated Press)
    -ARCHIVES: "Wilt Chamberlain" (Bleacher Report)
    -ARCHIVE: "Wilt Chamberlain" (Sports Illustrated)