Luncheon celebrates Chamberlain’s legacy

State Rep. Ron Waters, second from left, with Wilt Chamberlain’s sisters Barbara Lewis, Serena Chamberlain-Gross, and seated, Margaret Lane. — PHOTO/ROBERT MENDELSOHN

The only entity that could outshine Wilt Chamberlain the athlete is Wilt Chamberlain the man.

The athlete is known for the seminal 100-point game on March 2, 1962, against the New York Knicks, and for setting 128 professional basketball records — 98 of which are still standing.

But the man is known for much more than grabbing more than 50 rebounds in a game versus Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics; Chamberlain’s mark truly lies in his philanthropy, as he donated his time, money and celebrity status to dozens of charities throughout his life.

And it’s in the spirit of that life that The Wilton Norman Chamberlain Postal Stamp Committee held a luncheon in his honor Friday at the District Square Plaza. The gathering was also designed to bring more attention to the committee’s drive to have the United States Postal Service issue a stamp honoring the “Big Dipper.”

City basketball icons Billy Cunningham and John Chaney served as co-hosts for the luncheon, which included a virtual parade of friends and peers who knew Wilt — his sister, Selina Chamberlain-Gross, gave he invocation.

“There were eighty to a hundred charities Wilt was dedicated to,” Cunningham said. “There were so many parts of Wilt. He certainly left this world a better place than he found it.”

Chaney, in his own unique way, paid homage to perhaps the greatest basketball player this city has ever produced by blurting out, “Wilt owes me money!” Once the laughter died down, though, Chaney grew serious when he talked about the impact Wilt had, not only on the basketball court, but in virtually every other aspect of life as well.

“Wilt is one of the greatest philanthropists … the city is not aware of his great philanthropy,” Chaney said. “Wilt was a person who had a vision, and I was impressed by how he was able to think so many years ahead. Wilt was someone very special.”

Chaney and others spoke of the good works done by the Wilt Chamberlain Memorial Fund, which has granted scholarships to deserving students throughout the years.

Essence White, an engineering major at Smith University, is one of the students assisted by the fund, and sent a note of gratitude. “I give great thanks to the Wilt Chamberlain Foundation for helping me,” the note read in part. “I hope to one day give back to the youths the same way the foundation gave to me.”

One would think Chamberlain is deserving of a stamp on the sheer strength of his community involvement and giveback nature alone. Factor in Wilt’s mastery of the game of basketball, and he should be considered a shoo-in.

“He was a special guy who did special things,” said current Temple basketball coach Fran Dunphy, who has Temple’s basketball team nationally ranked for he first time since Chaney stalked the sidelines. “He was just way too great a man for me to say anything important about.”

Fran, like many of Wilt’s peers and teammates, recalled how truly unstoppable Wilt was on the court.

Chamberlain was born on August 21, 1936, and once the graceful seven-footer took up basketball, he immediately put his school — Overbrook High School — and then his college — Kansas State — on the basketball map.

After leaving KSU, Chamberlain joined the Globetrotters before joining the National Association of Basketball’s Philadelphia Warriors, and it’s here that more casual fans pick up on Chamberlain’s career. Chamberlain went on to play in the league for 14 years, and remains the only professional basketball player to have his jersey number retired by every team he played for.

Chamberlain was selected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979, and in 1996, was named as one of the 50 greatest players of all time.

Chamberlain’s still-standing records may indeed never be broken. Only Kobe Bryant’s 81 points scored in a game comes close to Chamberlain’s 100; that same year, Chamberlain had a 50-point scoring average. He also has a record 55 rebounds in a game against Russell and the Celtics, and 1959, Chamberlain was Rookie of the Year, league MVP and MVP of the NBA All-Star Game.

Wilt also sponsored an all-women’s track team, “Wilt’s Wonder Women,” which counted Olympians Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Florence Griffith-Joyner as members.

“Nobody was bigger than Wilt,” said former Harlem Globetrotter Carl Green, who would play pick-up ball in New York City with Wilt, at the height of the Philly vs. new York basketball rivalry. “I’m older than Wilt, but the things he taught me; and his family treated me like family.”

Former Knick and Los Angeles’ Laker Tom Hoover drew laughter when he recalled that Chamberlain was once going to fight Muhammad Ali. “I told Wilt, you can make this fight happen, and we can make some money, but Ali is going to kick your ass,” Hoover recalled. “Just like you and I have played basketball all our lives, Ali has been boxing all of his.” Luckily, Hoover and others were able to talk Chamberlain out of it.

“We developed a friendship over the years … he was a humanitarian, he helped everybody,” Hoover said. “The big fella — he was a beautiful person.”

Sill, everything rotated back to that magical night 50 years ago.

Harvey Pollack, the Philadelphia 76ers’ longtime director of statistical information was the one who gave Chamberlain the piece of paper with “100” scribbled on it. Chamberlain is holding that sheet of paper aloft in one of his more famous pictures. Pollack was busy with a number of jobs during the game.

“There never was a greater player than Wilt,” Pollack said, noting that Chamberlain would have had even more records had the league tracked blocked shots and that, as a center, he once led the league in assists. “He played 50 years ago, but most of his records still stand.”

Many politicians voiced their legislative support, then talk turned to making Chamberlain’s appearance on a postage stamp a reality. U.S. Rep. Robert Brady recalled being a kid in the Overbrook Park section of the city, with “passing the ball to Wilt Chamberlain” was his greatest athletic moment as a young man. Brady stated that last year he introduced House Bill 71, which calls for the postal service to issue the stamp.

State Representative Ronald G. Waters also presented citations to the stamp committee and Chamberlain’s family.

“We will get this done,” said Waters. “Because it’s well deserved, and the right thing to do.”

Those on the postal stamp committee sounded optimistic that something can be done, and soon. The committee has been at work for roughly three years now, and hope for the issuance of the stamp in the next year or two.

“We have been on this journey for a while,” said stamp committee chairman Roger C. Bogle. “And I can say we are under consideration for the stamp.”

Committee member Michael Bruton spelled it out further.

“I believe we’re on track,” Bruton said, noting that people can also sign the petition online. “And it’s important to hear from influential people. Brady and several others have written letters, including former governor Ed Rendell and NBA Commissioner David Stern. We feel that should help.”

Legendary sports writer and postal stamp committee co-chairman Donald Hunt agreed.

“The key word here is ‘deserved,’ not just for his game but for the man he was,” Hunt said, while mentioning that the committee has amassed roughly 55,000 signatures so far. “It’s our hope that we can get something done, sooner rather than later.”  

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