Between Jesus and Wilt Chamberlain: A Story of Fandom

1.

I saw Wilt Chamberlain in person one time, saw him play I mean. Probably a fair number of people my age who lived in Philadelphia or Los Angeles or even other NBA cities can say the same thing. But I didn’t grow up there. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and, to this day, I’m the only person I know besides my Dad, who took me to the game, who ever saw Wilt play in person.

We moved to Madison from Portland, Oregon in July 1968, the summer I turned three. Though I can’t remember that summer, many of my earliest, and happiest, memories from our first few years in Madison involve basketball. My dad and oldest brother dug a posthole next to the driveway, poured concrete, put in a pole, and climbed high on a shining silver ladder to attach a backboard and rim. I stared up from directly below: the still stiff white net, circled by the bright orange rim, both crisply set off against a perfect blue sky. I would adjust my position, trying to stand just perfectly, so that as I stared straight up the circle of the bottom of the net and the circle of the rim would be aligned concentrically.

Not long after that, a second rim, bolted to a homemade, unpainted, plywood backboard, around seven feet off the ground for my benefit, was added to our basketball pole (itself soon to be painted with hot pink rust-proof paint). Of course, back then there was no cable television. Basketball, especially pro, was still struggling to sell itself to fans, to advertisers, and to television executives, so there weren’t a lot of games on television, and we had no hometown franchise in Madison. My basketball universe consisted of a game or two on television on the weekends, my older brother’s high school games, and an endless string of NCAA Championships and NBA Finals played out between me and my imagination in the driveway.

♦◊♦

An entirely new world was opened to me when the Milwaukee Bucks joined the National Basketball Association as an expansion franchise in the 1968-69 season. When I was a boy, they played several games a year in Madison, either at the University of Wisconsin Field House or, more commonly, at the Dane County Coliseum. I don’t remember which was the first game I saw them play there. The truth is I don’t even remember for certain how many games I went to or which teams I saw them play. I think that, in all, I probably saw them around a dozen times or so over the course of several years.

In the troughs between the peaks of a seeing a live game in person, I discovered the consolations of radio. Starting around the time I was seven, there was a lot of tension in my home when I was growing up. My siblings were teenagers, so they argued amongst themselves a lot, and they also argued—especially my oldest brother—with my parents a lot. But above all, my parents fought with each other, especially at night after I’d gone to bed. I assume they thought I wouldn’t hear. Everybody tried to be real careful about that, but my bedroom was right above the kitchen, and I could hear. It seems like every night. Even if I couldn’t make out—or understand—most of the words, the tones were unmistakable: my mother’s low, mumbled stubbornness, my father’s more punctuated, staccato bark. Sometimes I still hear, softly from somewhere inside my ears, those unintelligible but unmistakable sounds as I fall asleep at night.

At that time, I had a little AM radio, shaped like a cube. In fact, it was a dice. It was red with white dots. The volume and tuning dials were the “two” side of the dice. I’d put that radio as close as I could to my head on the pillow. Then the mesmerizing cadence and tone of Eddie Doucette’s radio call would pull me away from the fading voices of adult unhappiness, disappointment and resentment, right through the radio to the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Chicago Stadium, the Milwaukee Arena—Mecca as it was known—or Madison Square Garden. Today most of those arenas, if the structures even exist at all anymore, are branded, called names like ATT Center, Target Garden, or what have you. I wonder if that’s as magical to hear over a radio when your parents are fighting and you can’t fall asleep.

Kareem-BucksEddie would both comfort and excite me with his description of Kareem’s sky-hooks, the Big O’s fall-away jumper, and Bobby “the Greyhound” Dandridge’s streaking fast-break lay-ups. I’d listen carefully when his color man, Ron “The Professor” Blomberg, would break down the plays and the strategy involved. Then, momentarily all child again, I’d laugh when Eddie would interview Bango, the Bucks mascot. Bango, incidentally, was named after the exclamation Eddie coined for a Bucks’ basket, as in “Kareem, on the baseline, fed by Robertson, fakes the pass to Curtis Perry in the lane, turns to his left for the sky hook—Bango!”

Working for a small-market franchise, Eddie would never be as widely famous as the big-market radio announcers like Chick Hearn or Johnny Most, but he was more than enough for me. And his call would serve as the template on which I’d base my own solitary adventures on the imaginary hardwood of the poured concrete driveway. I lived to hear the word “Bango.” I say I discovered radio, but really, I discovered the ambiguously soothing pleasures of solitude wrapped up in the sound blanket of Eddie Doucette.

♦◊♦

Coliseum03During those first six glorious seasons, the Bucks played 20 games in Madison. As I said, I don’t remember for certain, with a few exceptions, exactly which games I attended. What I do remember very clearly are the bright lights of the Coliseum, its circular shape and dome-like roof that reminded me of a flying saucer. I remember the bitter cold outside walking from and to the parking lot on frigid Madison winter nights—snow plowed into mountain ranges lining the edges of the lot.  I remember the warm, welcoming but slightly overpowering smell of popcorn as we shuffled into the lobby with the rest of the heard.  I remember the the plush, red, fold-out theater seats in the arena that had so much spring to them that I sometimes worried they’d fold me right up inside them.  I remember poring over and almost accidentally memorizing the facts and photos in the glossy programs. I remember the gleaming, pristine, wooden floor, the perfect glass backboards, the brightly painted lanes, the fancy cube-shaped scoreboard hanging above center court—all so different from the high school gym where I watched my older brother play for his team.

Most of all, I remember the thrill and awe of the size of the players as they trotted in a line out of their locker rooms and onto the court for their pre-game warm-up routines and then peeled off those flashy warm-ups to reveal the bright uniforms. Pistol Pete Maravich, Dave Bing, Bob Lanier, Tiny Archibald, Bob McAdoo, and John Havlicek were just a few of the legends I saw and for whom I formed such atavistic, powerful attachments and aversions. On the face of it, those feelings were as simple and definite as a love of chocolate ice cream and a hatred for the smell of cauliflower. I loved Oscar Robertson and hated Rick Barry. I loved Tiny Archibald and hated John Havlicek. I loved Walt “Clyde the Glide” Frazier and hated Gail Goodrich (though I did like his name).

When I reflect a little on these players, though, the bottom drops out of the simplicity, and deeply-hidden, dimly-perceived swirling forces driving these preferences begin to surface. There is, first of all, race. In the list above, the three players I loved were African-American, the three that I hated, Caucasian. And as I think about other affinities and aversions of the day, I realize that was often the case. I’m not entirely sure how this works—growing up in a suburban neighborhood, in a university town in the Midwest, I don’t remember meeting many black kids or adults, at least not until my new best friend Robb moved into the neighborhood sometime around 1976. And I’m not aware of any conscious feelings or attitudes about race from my early childhood. I don’t remember even being aware of race, period. And yet, the fact remains: the map of my passions was racially segregated, and my heart lived on the wrong side of the tracks.

When I think about how I actually experienced the objects of my affection and loathing, I think this: I loved smooth and fluid, fast but unhurried, creative but cool and apparently effortless effectiveness. I hated rough, scurrying, emotional, clumsy, scrapping effectiveness. It was not about effort (Oscar Robertson tried just as hard as Rick Barry). It was not about talent (all the hated players I named are now Hall of Famers). It was not about effectiveness (I didn’t even notice, let alone love or hate, the ineffective players).

It was about style, about aesthetics and something that I apparently invested in that style, upon which I then unconsciously mapped race. I connected my hated style—and the players I reduced to incarnations of it—with being emotional and out of control, and I believe I hated that because it felt like such a dominant feature of my household growing up, especially of my father. In addition, as the youngest by far, I always felt like I was trying: trying to keep up, trying to be good, trying not to be a crybaby. I hated myself for the effort I had to make, and I realize that I also hated the sweaty, panting, grimacing evidence of effort apparent on my hated players. So in hating Rick Barry’s matted sweaty hair, his foolish-looking (if incredibly effective) underhanded free-throw shooting style, his shoving and holding on defense, his petulant whining to the refs, I was hating my dad, and my family as a whole. And I was hating myself.

Conversely, in loving Oscar, Tiny, and Clyde, I was loving a desired possibility, a different way to be. It’s striking to me now that this desired possibility never, ever seemed elusive. Differences in talent, size, age, or race made no difference to my imagination, which hurdled those gaps with ease. I think I was ten years old before I realized, really realized, that the players I loved were almost all black and I wasn’t. Even after that it didn’t matter. Anything could happen in the universe of basketball.

♦◊♦

clyde subwayI once got permission from my mother to transform an old white undershirt of mine—how tiny it must have been—into a Knicks jersey by painting “Knicks” on the front and the number 10 below the name “Frazier” on the back. Then, for good measure, I took the same black tempera paint and gave myself the beard and sideburns that I thought looked like Clyde’s. I love that memory because it speaks to me of a time in the past (and perhaps whispers of a possible dimension of myself in the present) when my sense of possibility was so large and flexible that I could seamlessly identify with and transform myself into a 28-year-old, 6′-4″ black man, known almost as much for his fancy hats, suits, and his Rolls Royce off the court as for his defensive wizardry and smooth playmaking on the court.

Which brings to mind the other feature shared by nearly all the players I loved: they were playmakers, floor generals, point guards. They were also often, not always, the smallest players on the floor, which must have appealed to me as well. Not because I already knew that I’d never be tall, but because I was the smallest in my family. Despite their relatively diminutive stature, with their intelligence, their quickness, their unerring judgment, and their ball-handling skills, they controlled the complex flowing pattern of player and ball movement on the floor. Or at least that’s how it looked to me. It would probably be more accurate, I think now, to say that they harmonized themselves with and thereby influenced that pattern. But to me they were small and in control, and what could be better than a world run by the smallest.

In addition, their control of the game was also a positive function of their unselfishness. They controlled, not by dominating others, not by physically threatening them, not by bossing or asserting their will or demands, but rather by giving to others. I know that in reality things were much more complicated, but as I experienced my family at the time, things looked pretty simple: my dad was assertive. He bossed and yelled and demanded a lot, while my mom was quiet and kind and compassionate and generous and understanding. Besides the obvious reasons why a young boy might find the latter a more desirable model than the former, there was also the fact that with my siblings growing up and out of the house and my father gone much of the time, my mom and I spent a lot of time alone together and had a very close relationship. My mom was the point guard, and in many ways, for better and for worse, I learned from her that love meant being a pass-first point guard.

It wasn’t hard for me, raised Catholic and in Catholic schools, to see Jesus as God’s very own coach on the floor, a divine pass-first point guard. With the twin examples of my mother and Jesus, was there any question that I would compress and shape myself, on the court and off, into the very best pass-first point guard that I could? What force could possibly serve as a counter to the endlessly patient, smiling kindness of those two? What Satan could possibly awaken the desire in me for anything else? What Satan could save me from these sweet saviors?

2.

The Big Men were in a separate category altogether and Wilt Chamberlain was the biggest and the baddest of the Big Men. Neither loved nor hated, nor unnoticed, I felt for the Big Men a vertigo-like combination of attraction and terror. They were like dinosaurs to me, absurdly large, another species with a whole different way of moving than anyone else on the court. And like dinosaurs, I was fascinated with them, but also frightened by them. I don’t think my mind really knew yet how to assimilate their difference. But it was more than just their size that was inassimilable to me.

Rationally, I could comprehend their function on the court as shot blockers, rebounders, and inside scorers, but emotionally and aesthetically I couldn’t really understand or connect to their style and their values. What did it mean—what could it mean?—to be so huge, to take up so much space, to live so close to the rim? What would it be like to be unable to handle the ball and to be OK with just receiving passes? Wouldn’t you feel anxious depending on others like that? What if they didn’t pass to you? What if they fumbled the ball away?

goodjesusBut also, wouldn’t there be a lot of pressure on you, just someone else doing all the work and you get the pass? You better put it in the hole every time or else everyone would surely hate you. I’d rather be the one passing. Then, when the big-for-nothin’ doofus misses the bunny, I can seethe inside and sublimate my anger by telling him not to worry about it, that I understand he’s trying his best. Just like Jesus. Just like my mom.

♦◊♦

Enter my very own snake in the garden. For, despite my steady self-fashioning, along the lines of God’s own point guard
 and his proxy my mother, no player excited me more than Wilt Chamberlain, the Big Dipper. And I was never more excited to see a Bucks game than I was to see Wilt’s Lakers play in person in Madison on March 1, 1972. I knew about Wilt’s 100-point game (and that it had happened exactly-ten-years-minus-one-day from when I would be seeing him), of course. I knew about his 50-points-per-game, 26-rebound-per-game season in 1961-62. I knew about all his individual records. I knew about his rivalry with Bill Russell of the Celtics, about how Wilt struggled to gain recognition as a winner and so belie the perception that he was a selfish individualist who never learned to accommodate his massive talent with a successful team framework.

1498771_775526469141032_91450165_oWilt was unreal to me as a person, like JFK or Michael Jackson. Even seeing him in person, from just a few yards away as I did that night, my mind struggled to assimilate his reality. With even the greatest of the other players I saw live during those years I was able to enjoy the way their mythical greatness was incarnated before my eyes, rendering them human and accessible: I might never walk its full length, but there was a single basketball court linking me to Walt Frazier. Not so with Wilt. He played on a different court entirely. He played in a universe of his own. With Wilt, my juvenile intellectual and emotional gears creaked a bit and stalled. He was, undeniably, there, a living individual, walking and talking before my eyes. But somehow I couldn’t quite accept it. He was truly, as they say, larger than life, more than real. My young mind and heart were thrilled and blown by the dimensions of his presence.

Also, my dad hated Wilt. I’d always thought it was because Wilt endorsed Nixon in the 1972 presidential campaign, but when I recently asked my dad about it he didn’t remember that at all. He remembers preferring Russell to Chamberlain in the context of their rivalry because of the usual thing: Russell was able more intelligently to integrate his own astonishing abilities with those of his teammates. In my dad’s words, “Chamberlain was blessed (or cursed) with a powerful physical presence which he used to neglect team play.”

Now, this is a much more muted and reasonable expression of his aversion than what I recall, which makes sense since my dad has mellowed considerably. Also, I am no longer a small six-year-old boy. But at the time, my dad’s preferences and desires seemed enormous to me: they were the most important desires in a household in which everyone’s desires seemed more important than mine. On Christmas Eve, when we opened our presents, we opened them in descending order of age. So if he hated Wilt Chamberlain, it was as though, when I looked at Wilt on the television screen, the big man slowly morphed into a scowling, bullying, roaring demon. Even his jersey number, 13, looked menacing and vaguely evil to me.

♦◊♦

Except it wasn’t quite that simple because already at that age I was finding secret ways to rebel and one of them was by secretly loving the player my dad obviously hated. Sure. But that doesn’t quite explain it either because, in many ways, though he disliked him, my dad was the Chamberlain of our family: our offense revolved entirely around him, he was unapologetically self-assertive to say the least, he was a dominating presence, and he wasn’t a great team player, at least that’s how it looked to me. So maybe in disliking Chamberlain on the grounds that he wasn’t a team player, my dad was unconsciously expressing a dislike for himself and a wish to be more like Russell.

That sort of analysis is tricky business and I don’t really believe I know what the situation really was or what my dad was really thinking. What I do feel certain of, though, is that—justly or not, and certainly unconsciously—I identified Wilt and my father, and I believe that in my secret love of Wilt I found a way to express not only a secret love and admiration for my father, but also a secret desire to be like him. Which is to say, to be the opposite of a point guard, to be the guy who could take 60 shots a game and not feel bad because he knew that he could make 36 of them, knew that he could score 100 points. What would that be like? It must feel awesome to be Wilt! The center of everyone’s attention, all the energy of the game directed toward you, and it doesn’t make you feel bad, like you’ve done something wrong or are hurting someone else, it just feels natural and right because it is natural and right because you are bigger and stronger than everyone else and, well, you cannot be stopped. You should do whatever you want because you can do whatever you want. If it was wrong, someone, something should stop you.

To this day, to the degree that I understand success in life, I articulate it in terms of basketball, perhaps as something like “know when to take your shot, and know when to give it up” and a series of other corollary metaphors related to defense and rebounding. The elements of that vocabulary and the mythological figures that would stand for some basic forces were forged back in those days I am recalling. I spent much of my life (spend some of it still today) veering madly between my outward worship of the abstract, unselfish, point-guard ideal and my shameful, secret fascination with the scoring machine, the player who, as they say, has no conscience. Point guard or scorer? Mom or Dad? Christ or Satan? These were the extreme dichotomies that shaped my growing up and learning to blur them, or elude them altogether might be one way that I would describe what it means to me, in my life, to become a man.

♦◊♦

During the 1971-1972 season, when Wilt and I converged at the Dane County Coliseum, the NBA had 17 teams divided into two conferences, Eastern and Western, and four divisions, Atlantic and Central in the East and Midwest and Pacific in the West. My defending champion Milwaukee Bucks were 55-15 and sitting comfortably in first place in the Midwest Division. The Lakers were an awesome 57-11, far ahead in the Pacific. Though both teams were assured a playoff spot by this point, the game had the atmosphere of playoff intensity, both because the best record in the league and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs were still at stake. There is that atmosphere whenever the two best teams in any league compete, and, no doubt, because the major players on each team were among the greatest competitors in the game’s history. Still there were only 9,227 fans in attendance that night. Though records show that to have been a sellout, that’s obviously fewer fans than we’d expect in an NBA arena today for a game with stars of that magnitude. And though it must have been packed, I remember it as if the Coliseum were half-empty. Maybe that’s my mind’s way of registering how special I felt being there that night: as if I were in on a secret that most of Madison missed out on, as if I had been one of the 4,000 or so fans who saw Wilt’s 100-point game.

Now I love it, but back then I felt ashamed to be in the minority among my friends in Madison as a basketball fan. They were baseball and football and hockey fans and basketball hadn’t gripped the imaginations of my suburban, almost all white friends. I often wished that I could love baseball and football and hockey as much as they did. I wished that my father, a Spanish immigrant, did and that he was adept at those sports like their fathers always seemed to be. I wished that I wasn’t afraid of a pitch, wasn’t afraid of a collision in football, wasn’t afraid of falling on the ice. I wished, in that way, to be more clearly an American boy. But it wasn’t that way: I played soccer and basketball, and while my dad was always unequivocally and enthusiastically supportive of my playing and I enjoyed watching games with him, he was never very good at basketball, which was new to him. So for a few years at least, I feel that I was the only kid in Madison who loved and played basketball, and I was certainly the only one of my friends to see the Bucks and the Lakers that night. I hated that then. I am grateful for it now.

♦◊♦

That Lakers team was named one of the top 10 teams of the NBA’s first 50 years. The Bucks team of the previous season, for that matter, substantially the same team I would be watching that night, could easily have been included in that list—in fact, by one reckoning the 1970-71 Bucks are the most dominant team of all time. In any event, among the 10 players who started that game for their respective teams were five who would be inducted into the Hall of Fame as players: Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Robertson, Gail Goodrich, and Jerry West, whose silhouetted image is now the logo for the NBA. Four of them—all but Goodrich—would be named to the list of the 50 greatest players in the NBA’s first half-century. Indeed, I’d say most honest fans would put those four on their list of the top 10 players in NBA history. The remaining starters were role players on these two teams but would have been stars on other teams. And one player, a Lakers reserve who actually had a big game that night, would become a Hall-of-Fame coach: Pat Riley.

I don’t remember very much about the game, almost nothing in fact, except for the quick, swirling movements of West, Goodrich, and Robertson on the perimeter, and, especially, Kareem posting up Wilt near the hoop, their massive legs like tree trunks straining at eye-level in a duel for position, like my dinosaur books with drawn images of Triceratops battling Tyrannosaurus Rex to the death. I remember that the Bucks lost a close one. So I looked up an old newspaper account and found that the Bucks had taken a four-point lead into the fourth quarter, extended it to five with just over a minute to play, and then blown the game in the final minute, losing by a point on a Gail Goodrich—my God I hated him!—jump shot with four seconds to go. Chamberlain had missed three free throws with the Lakers down by one, but the last was rebounded by Lakers’ forward Happy Hairston, who passed it out to Goodrich for the game winner.

I doubt that in the excitement of what I’d seen I cared very much about the loss. About a month or so later, the Bucks would lose in the Western Conference Finals to the Lakers, who would in turn go on to defeat the Knicks for the championship, Wilt’s second as a player. Before too long, Oscar would retire, Kareem would be traded to L.A., and I struggled to maintain my love for the Bucks even though they stopped playing in Madison and their roster was now populated with mere mortals rather than the mythical heroes of my early years.

But that night I would go back home dumbly trying to assimilate the magnitude of what I had witnessed: Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest players ever. And then, the next day, as on so many days after that, I would ask my father to move the car out of the driveway, put on several layers of clothes, grab a rubber Wilson basketball out of the garage, my fingers already growing cold (they would soon be numb), and try desperately and joyfully, through practice and imagination, to grow my very ordinary self to the size of what I had witnessed, to the extraordinary dimensions of the Big Dipper.

wiltdunk

A decade later, during my junior and senior years in high school, the apex of my own basketball career, I was the point guard on my team. We had different jersey numbers for home and away: even at home, odd away. I was 12 at home. I loved 12, which seemed benign and soft to me. The number of quarterbacks. The number of point guards. The number of intelligence. By contrast, I always felt a little uncomfortable in 13, Wilt’s number, which was stitched on my away jersey. This was long before the days of Steve Nash, of course. Back then, 13 was wrinkled and hard—it was ugly and looking for a fight. And to me, somewhere in the depths of my soul, when I no longer thought regularly about Wilt Chamberlain, 13 both attracted and threatened me. Lord knows what I might do when I’m wearing number 13.