Wilt Chamberlain's Lasting Legacy

The decorated basketball player had another love, volleyball

Wilt Chamberlain didn't pick up volleyball until he was in his 30s, but his competitive spirit and natural athleticism made him a good player off the bat.
Wilt Chamberlain didn't pick up volleyball until he was in his 30s, but his competitive spirit and natural athleticism made him a good player off the bat.

Wilt Chamberlain, a 7'1" professional basketball player considered by some to be the best player of all time, also spent a considerable amount of time on the volleyball court. After his death in 1999, VBM gathered some of his closest friends in the volleyball community to pay tribute to the man who fell in love with and did so much for our sport.

Wilt Chamberlain, who died in October 1999 of a heart attack at 63, was seven feet, one inch tall, but most people who stood next to him will tell you that he seemed a whole lot bigger. His presence was nearly indescribable, almost on the level of a comic book superhero.

It could be that his massive stature was tied directly to his legend, which was built around a general consensus that he was the greatest basketball player of his era. It could also be that it had a lot to do with the stories that people heard about him, stories like the time he stood at the beach on a summer day and held out his arm like an airplane wing while a two-year-old walked to his hand and back. Undoubtedly, these accounts were exaggerated over time, but they created a thinking that Wilt could do absolutely anything he wanted in a competitive arena, and maybe that was close to the truth.

His shoulders alone separated him from other men who stood at his altitude. In a way, it is fitting, because the sport of volleyball, which Wilt loved and played with the same fierce passion he demonstrated on the basketball court, rode on those broad platforms in the 1970s and ‘80s and landed at a higher perch in the eyes of American sports fans.

Make no mistake. Without Wilt, who barnstormed with his Big Dippers, coached a women’s team called the Little Dippers, competed in the International Volleyball Association, and dabbled on the beach, we would have an even steeper climb in educating the country about our sport. Back when Wilt first took it up, volleyball still suffered badly from the slap-it-around-picnic image, and his presence went a long way toward curing that. Here was a guy, after all, who had nothing to prove to anybody but still embraced this little game by spending much of his free time playing it. Because of him, it earned a certain legitimacy that no one of a lesser stature could have delivered.

“When we played, no matter where we went, we packed every place,” said Gene Selznick, a close friend of Wilt’s who played with him both indoors and out. “It was all because of Wilt. What he did for volleyball on the beach and indoors was something that myself or the USVBA couldn’t even imagine doing.”

It has been said that few people really knew Wilt Chamberlain. But one thing we did know is that volleyball touched him in a special way, and, in turn, he touched volleyball in a special way, a way that nobody who shared the court or a laugh with him will ever forget.

Gene Selznick, all-time great player

Wilt came out to play with the Lakers and Keith Erickson was one of the partners in my restaurant called The Windjammer. The Lakers came there, the Rams came there. And one time when Wilt was there he came up and asked me if I could teach him how to play volleyball. He heard I was the best volleyball player. So I took him to the beach and introduced him to beach volleyball and a new way of life. He had a passion for volleyball, and he learned how to play and did pretty well for a guy who never played volleyball until he was about 34 years old.

His game was not a defensive game. Very few big men play defensive volleyball. But as far as learning to hit the ball and blocking, he was dynamic. He had hands that would go right through a wall.

He became very adept at being a blocker and hitter on the left side. We had a four-man team. Four people against six. The reason we did that is so we wouldn’t have to rotate. So Wilt always stuck to one position.

Wilt was probably the most recognizable athlete in the world. As soon as he stepped on a plane, everybody knew it was Wilt Chamberlain. Of course, sometimes they called him Bill Russell. [Even] being the most recognizable athlete in the world, he would go out every night. He’d go dancing or go to movies. No other celebrity attempts to go out even twice a week that I know of. I don’t care who they are, they’re always hiding somewhere. But Wilt couldn’t hide. And he was out all the time. A lot of people got to see him, got to know him. And he was just one hell of a guy.

A lot of people wanted to take advantage of him because he was Wilt Chamberlain. They wanted to be seen with him or to help them raise funds. The requests he got were unbelievable. It was hard for him to lead the kind of life he wanted because of all the people who wanted him to do things for them.

When we played, no matter where we went, we packed every place. High schools, you name it. All because of Wilt. And whenever we hit Dallas or Chicago, all the basketball teams came out to watch him. What he did for volleyball on the beach and indoors is something that myself of the USBVA at the time couldn’t even imagine doing.

Wilt really gave volleyball here in this country its first TV exposure. Because of him, we had media in every city we played.

You know, Wilt stuttered. When he got unhappy he tried to talk too fast and kind of stuttered a little. And my son, Dane, was playing with a guy who kind of made fun of him. And Wilt thought it was Dane. So he tore after Dane, and Dane saw him coming. He turned around and Wilt put his arm out and grabbed his bathing suit. Dane was running in place for about five minutes and never took a step.

He and I went to a disco in LA recently. My friend opened it up. And my friend brings over two real nice girls and introduces Wilt as the best basketball player in the world. So the girl looks at him and says, “He doesn’t look like Michael Jordan.”

Linda Hanley, Olympic beach player

I definitely knew [Wilt] well enough that it hits me hard that I’m not going to be down at the beach and run into him anymore. It was such an abrupt thing. His love and involvement in volleyball was so good for the game. He obviously brought a lot of recognition when he decided that volleyball was his second love.

I was running around that whole day and hadn’t heard on the radio, and we were watching Bob Costas do one of the baseball playoff games, and he said, “As you probably know by now, Wilt Chamberlain has died.” And in his comments, Bob said volleyball was one of his big loves. I thought it was interesting that even Bob Costas on a major telecast was letting everybody know how Wilt felt about the game.

At the time Wilt played, that was when volleyball absolutely took off. And there’s no doubt that he had a lot to do with that.

He just was such a character. Anytime you ran into him it was a good laugh and a good story, and it’s so sad to know that those are gone.

Byron Shewman, former IVA player

In 1978, I was a player-coach for the Tucson Sky. The All-Star Game was held in El Paso, and I was coaching the East team. Wilt was playing, and a journalist from the major El Paso paper called me a couple of days before for an interview about the game. I found out later that this guy didn’t like Wilt, and he asked me specifically, “What do you think about Wilt?” And we had all been kind of primed not to say too many negative things about Wilt.

Wilt was, by and large, a very effective hitter. The rest of his game was spotty because he hadn’t played that much. His blocking and ball handling were not too strong, and his hands were so big he couldn’t set the ball. It was like setting a softball or a baseball. And his passing wasn’t that strong, either. But it didn’t matter. It was a specialized game at that time. There was no rotation. And he was very effective in his role.

There were some world-class players at that game, and also the best American players, who were getting better all the time with the competition.

So we got to El Paso, and the morning of the match, I was at breakfast. And Dodge Parker, an old friend who was on the other team, said, “Did you see the headline in the paper? Why did you say that?” And I said, “Say what?” So I looked at the paper, and it said something like “Shewman says East will go after Chamberlain’s weak ball handling.”

When we got to the gym before the match, the owner of the league came up in a panic and said, “Byron, you’ve got to go over and talk to Wilt. He’s threatening not to play. And if that happens, we’ve got no TV.” And I’m stammering, and I see Wilt. And it was one of those hot El Paso days, and he was over there sweating in his tank top. He looked like Godzilla. It looked like he had steam coming off his forehead. So I went over and said, “Wilt, can I have a word with you?” And he said, “Don’t even bother,” and he turned his back on me.

After warm ups, they introduced both teams, and we were kind of behind the bleachers. And for some reason, I was the last guy to be introduced for the East and he was the last guy from the West. I’ll never forget standing next to him. We were back in this corner, like in a cave. And here was this giant of a human being still seething at me, and I just wanted them to introduce me so I could get out of there.

“And then Wilt went out and played—and I’ve seen three Olympics and a lot of world-class, high-level volleyball—and he played as well as any hitter I’ve ever seen. He was playing against some world-class players, and I can’t remember his stats, but it was something close to a 90-percent kill rate. I guess a lot of it was attributed to me and that headline.

After the game, I ran up to the writer and said, “You’d better get over there right now.” I made sure that guy wrote a letter of apology to let Wilt know that he misquoted me, which he did. And he did write it.

I saw Wilt maybe a year later on the beach and we laughed and he said, “Don’t worry about it.”

Kathy Gregory, member of Wilt’s Little Dippers women’s team in the ‘70s

When Wilt was playing with the Lakers, there was a coed tournament in Manhattan Beach, and there were two guys and two girls – four man. And they were giving away Boogie Boards. I remember calling Wilt, who was the highest paid player in the NBA, and I said, “Wilt, we’ve got to play in this four-man – two girls and two guys. So I’ll get you and Mike Norman and Nancy Cohen and myself.”

So we were in the finals and we were ahead 12-6, and I set it and Wilt hit a ball out. I set him again and he sort of taped it. And I said, “Wilt, come one. This is for a Boogie Board.” So he hit it straight down, and after we won, we all ran to fight over the Boogie Board, even Wilt. The highest paid guy in the NBA was as excited as all of us.

I think the biggest thing about Wilt that people don’t know is that he was such a caring, sensitive person. When he coached the Little Dippers, you’d say, “What does he know about volleyball?” Well, you know what? He knew about people, and he knew how to motivate them, and he knew how to analyze sports, and it didn’t matter if it was basketball or volleyball. He was a great coach.

I don’t think he had anything to prove. I think he just loved the social interaction in volleyball. It gave him a whole new group of people to meet.

And he liked it. He liked all the talking. He liked the dialogue. He wanted to prove that he could be good, and he did. But I think he did it because he liked the people. And what he did for volleyball goes without saying.

He loved the game, too. When he was playing with the Lakers, he would still come to our practices.

One night [on a team trip] we went gambling. I was at the little roulette table for 25 cents, and all of a sudden I hear the big crowd and noise, and there’s Wilt in a big white suit, the most unbelievable white suit. And he says, “Come on, we’re going to the craps table.” I said, “I can’t go over there.” He said, “Come on over.” So the next minute we’re over there, and we’re playing. He’s got five or ten thousand dollars out there. He’s betting, and I’m putting down my little two dollars. And the dice come and he says, “You’ve got to roll.” So then he starts putting money on there. A couple times I had the number eight, and then I rolled an eight. So then he took all this money—like $5,000—and he put it on the Pass Line. And I went, “Oh my God.” I was more nervous than I had ever been playing volleyball. And I took the dice and I threw them and they went like 20 feet off the table. Then I rolled like three sevens and he made about $50,000.

He was such a good friend. When I started coaching in college, he came to all my games. Whether I won or lost he always gave me a pep talk, and he was always there for me. And we talked about a lot of things. I think people don’t know that he was a really sensitive, caring, generous person.

John Hanley, Former AVP player

When we were in college [in Hawaii], we used to go down to the Hilton. There was a group of four of us. My roommate and me and another guy, and Wilt would come down and we’d play doubles.

What I remember was that he would very much look forward to playing hearts with us after we got done playing a game of ball. And the great thing about it was that out of nowhere some sandwiches would show up—or a bunch of soft drinks or some beers—for everybody who was playing.

And there was a guy down there—Herm was his name—and he was an older guy, I think he was a dentist by trade, but he knew Wilt really well. And we thought Herm was the guy buying everything for the guys who were in college and kind of struggling, wondering where the next meal was coming from. But Wilt was the one who was paying for this stuff all the time.

We found out later on it was Wilt, and this had gone on for a period of two years. He made it clear that he didn’t want anybody knowing where it was coming from. It was really nice at that time, because we were going around Waikiki hitting happy hours, searching for a dollar beer and chicken wings.

Kirk Kilgour, member of the Big Dippers

When I was on the Dippers, it was me, Larry [Rundle], [Ed] Becker, and Gene Pflueger occasionally Butch [May] and Gene [Selznick], of course, and Toshi Toyoda. And we’d be in the airport somewhere, and Wilt would be lying there, sort of taking a nap and somebody would see him and come over and sort of wake him up. And they’d go, “Are you Wilt Chamberlain?” And he’d laugh and go, “You’d better hope not.” He didn’t like getting woke up.

We were at a match once, and he and I had a couple of little disagreements. We were playing in Chicago, and he was sort of giving me crap about not digging a ball. And I said, “Okay, Wilt. I’m doing all the work here. You’re making the money, I’m making my $25 a match.” I said, “Dig a Ball.” And he said, “Ah, just do your job. I’m out here working hard. Get a swing and win this match and get it over with.” I said, “Okay, win it yourself.” So I went off the court, and somebody else went on. It was the only game we lost. And when we were in the locker room afterward, he said, “Don’t ever do that.” I said, “I’m tired of taking your crap, Wilt.” And he came over and put his hand on my head and lifted me off the ground with one arm and said, “Never walk off the court again.” And I looked at him and said, “Okay, Wilt. That’ll never happen again.”

There was another time. It was after a match, and we went out to nightclub. I was standing in the parking lot, talking with Larry Rundle or Butch, and this guy drives up in a car and honks his horn. I moved a little bit, and he sort of bumps me with his bumper. And I turned, and as he went back, I kicked his car. And this guy stopped and he got out. And he was this football player guy. He was probably five-foot-10 and about four and a half feet wide. And he came at me and started pushing, and I ducked and he was trying to hit me and I get out of his way, and he was a real strong guy. And I was holding him off, and Wilt came out and saw what was going on and walked over. And this guy was facing me. And Wilt tapped him on the shoulder and the guy turned to swing, looked up in the air and almost fainted. And Wilt said, “Is there a problem here?” And the guy said, “No, there’s no problem here.”

Everybody would ask me, “What kind of volleyball player was he?” I said, “Well, compared to who?” Compared to an average person he was a very good volleyball player. Compared to great players, he was an average player.

Jon Stevenson, former AVP player

Wilt. Not many sports figures have ever been so universally recognized. At one time, everyone knew Wilt. I remember him for many things… For Chick Hearn bemoaning his lack of offensive dexterity during his final years as a Laker when he would back his man in and (hopefully) finger roll or shoot a low percentage fall away jump shot. Amazing considering Wilt once scored 100 points in a game. I remember watching Wilt as a Philadelphia 76er battle Bill Russell and the Celtics on the parquet at Boston Garden. Wilt was the ultimate unstoppable force. That was probably 1965 or so.

While Wilt came off as an egotistical, womanizing, superhuman through his media persona, he was actually a cool guy with me. I played on a six-man team at the Manhattan Open with Wilt, Gary Hooper, Steve Obradovich, Jim Menges, and Marv Dunphy around 1978. Boy, those were the days. Wilt just loved volleyball.

I’ll best remember Wilt for how cool he was to let me “high ten” him after Chris Marlowe announced me as an inductee into the Nike “Legends of the Beach.” I had to sky to reach Wilt’s hands. What a thrill for me. I hope someone got a shot of that. Wilt was cool.

Butch May, member of the Big Dippers

Wilt couldn’t hit a high set, and he couldn’t hit a low set. But if you gave him a high “2” he was devastating. And he hit a heavy ball. The guy to give him the right set was Selznick. So Rundle and I did all the grunt work. Wilt hit probably 60 percent of the balls, because it was really Wilt’s show.

I always sat next to him on airplanes because his hands were too big for the utensils, so I knew I’d get two of everything that was ordered.

One time we were at an exhibition at Caesar’s Palace, and they were having a cattlemen’s convention. This woman came up and said, “Herman, that’s him.” And Herman said, “Martha, that’s not him.” She said, “Hey, big guy. How ‘bout a picture?” Wilt said, “No pictures at this time.” Everybody kept saying, “Aw, come on.” And so Herman took out the camera, and Martha stood next to him and said, “Come on, smile big guy.” And he smiled. And she said, “How ‘bout one with me and Herman?” So Herman was on one side, Martha was on the other. And she kept saying, “This is him, Herman.” And Herman kept saying, “It’s not him, Martha.” A big crowd was attracting. Somebody took the picture, and then she looked up at him and said, “Aren’t you Bill Russell?” And he stormed off. He was irate.

I remember a couple of years ago when Misty was MVP and had just won the Big West Championship. Wilt was being interviewed by Hovland, and my wife and I went up to say hello. And as we were coming up, Hovland said, “I noticed Misty had a shot…” and Wilt says, “Yes, I taught Misty’s father that shot, and I guess he passed it on to Misty.” And he looked at us and kind of winked.

Ed Becker, member of the Big Dippers

He enjoyed playing games. And he enjoyed winning whatever he was playing. And he’d cheat any opportunity. Especially in cards. You should have a whole section about his card cheating exploits. He was very good at it.

We’d be playing hearts at the beach, and he could remember every card in the deck if he saw it for just a split second. So what he would do is lean back and pretend like he was picking something up and look at everybody’s hand real quick. When we played, we never played for money, but everybody was always cheating. If you didn’t cheat, you couldn’t play with him. Basically that was kind of the rule, because you could never win if you didn’t cheat. So it was just a question of who cheated the best without getting caught. And there were some good cheaters down there. If you didn’t know what was going on with these guys, you’d just get eaten up and spit out. So every time you played you’d try to devise a new way to cheat.

It wasn’t really a card game. You’d see four guys sitting on the beach screaming at each other. It was really like 10 percent cards and 90 percent verbal babbling. I miss the card games the most, more than the volleyball.

A lot of times if him and Steno [Brunicardi] would be losing—and it didn’t matter what time of night it was—he wouldn’t let you leave. He’d physically block the door until they’d win. You couldn’t go home.

One time, Wilt was walking to the court at Muscle Beach and this guy named Amon Luckey ran in front of him and signed his name. Then Wilt signed his name and crossed Amon’s off. They got into a verbal sparring match. He would cross Wilt’s name off, and then Wilt would go back and put his name up and cross Amon’s off. And Wilt finally said, “If you do it one more time, you’re going to be sorry.” So he did it. Now, Amon’s about 250. He played football for UCLA way back. So Wilt picks him up and shot puts him into the top of the net. I don’t know if he actually netted and went over or netted and came back. Then Wilt asked him who was up next. And he said, “You are, Wilt.”

Jon Lee, decorated volleyball player and former Volleyball magazine senior editor

In the sand under Wally’s umbrella at Sorrento Beach, several people sprawl, playing diminishing bridge. They criticize each other’s plays, and entertain each other with wit, personality, and braggadocio. One, in particular, is louder than Von Hagen, Lang, Yoshi, Vogie, Steno, or any of the others. He’s also the best thing to ever hit the sport of volleyball, maybe sport in general. It’s Wilt Chamberlain.

In the early 1970s, far from his home in Philadelphia, and even farther from the hoopla and celebrity of the NBA spotlight, Wilt found a home. At Muscle Beach and Sorrento, he found the laid back, off-center beach volleyball scene to be comfortable, colorful, and energetic. Here he was, just another eccentric creature like Selznick, Steno, Vogelsang, Captain Jack, and dozens of other strange birds that flocked to California beach communities and landed around volleyball courts. He had found a new culture and a new sport.

Volleyball had found an instant celebrity. Wilt’s preeminent stature in American sports forced people who had never considered volleyball legitimate to suddenly give it another, much more serious look.
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There weren’t many looking at the AA finals at Marine Street at Manhattan Beach when Wilt and Randy Niles battled Bill Best and Gary Hooper on a wind-whipped Sunday evening. Only two, Matt Gage and my brother Greg Lee, huddled in the cold to see the combat. Best and Hooper earned their sacred AAA rating by somehow serving it in the court despite the gale, and defeating perhaps the most dominant physical specimen to ever play any American game.

It tells a great deal about the man that Wilt was out on that beach at all, after dozens of years of NBA stardom and packed arenas around the world. He had nothing to prove to anyone. It always amazed me how Wilt would take on new challenge, curious to see just how far he could take the incredible physical gifts he’d been given. He didn’t need the glory, and his skills in volleyball were not superb. Nonetheless, his drive to win was never a variable.
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When the first pro league (the IVA) got off the ground, there was Wilt, sweating buckets, and very tough to stop as he pounded Dodge Parker’s perfect little lob sets from way upstairs. The doubled attendance figures more than compensated for the extra towels needed to dry off the court after every spike.

There was Wilt, teaming with Pete Aronchck (another 6’8” hoop transplant) against Bill Walton and me at the Santa Monica Open. Bill and I took game one, but lost in three as these two giants of one sport spent every ounce of energy they had to win a pound of satisfaction and respect in another.

In the first World Championship of Wallyball, Wilt took his impressive dimensions to a racquetball court (which he seemed to fill completely). Larry (the Boomer) Milliken, my brother, and I defeated him in the finals, but he was playing with Joe Garcia (the sport’s inventor) and another pick-up player. He hammered all match, giving it his absolute all while every eye in the athletic club was on him. The crowd left with stories to tell.
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Wilt made memories for every fan who watched him play in the IVA, at USVBA Nationals, on the beach or with Selznick’s Big Dippers in gyms throughout the country. He was proud and loud. He sponsored women’s volleyball teams in a time when women’s sports had few boosters. He lent credibility to every face of the sport we all cherish. Wilt wanted to win every point, every match, and every conversation. He even wanted to win that card game under the umbrella at Sorrento Beach. And while he won his share, it is volleyball that was the big winner.

Curious what it looks like when one of the best athletes in the world takes the volleyball court? Watch the only video we could track down of Wilt playing volleyball.

Originally published in February 2000

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