Q&A: Robert Cherry on Wilt

Robert Cherry is a writer, journalist, and businessman whose work has appeared in The Arizona Republic, The New York Times, and The Jerusalem Post.  After selling his food manufacturing business, Robert published his first book which is a about Wilt Chamberlain, a fellow Philadelphian, and one of  the compelling figures of the 20th Century.   Robert’s definitive biography: “Wilt: Larger Than Life” (Triumph Books) has deconstructed Chamberlain’s life on and off the basketball court and provided new insight into the life that few have been able to fully grapple with.  Robert was kind enough to talk with us.

Question:    What interested you in writing a sports-related book?

Robert Cherry:    I became interested in journalism through Red Smith, the syndicated sports columnist whom I read in the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1960s.   Enjoying him, I began to read books by and about the other great sportswriter from the 1920s and 30s and 40s, a golden age of sports writing—people like Paul Gallico, Grantland Rice, Wesbrook Pegler and John Kiernan.  But my favorite was always Red Smith, a great reporter and superb writer.  But as much as I loved Red Smith, I never worked as a sportswriter.   I was a general assignment reporter and feature writer and, on one paper, a columnist.  Column writing—“flapping your wings in public,” as H. L. Mencken called it, was my favorite kind of newspaper writing.  I like to express my opinion and that is what columnists get paid to do.

Q:    How did your life journey lead to writing the book about Wilt?

RC:    I was born and raised in Philadelphia and went to the same high school [Overbrook] as Wilt, though six years after him.  When Wilt died in October of 1999, I listened to the tributes to him on WIP [Philadelphia’s local sports radio station] and I was struck by the heart-warming and interesting stories that so many callers offered.  Then the [Philadelphia] Daily News wrote about how Wilt befriended [former teammate] Paul Arizin’s granddaughter, who had a terminal illness.  I was moved to tears when I read the article.  These stories revealed a side of Wilt that I was unaware of.  I thought if I didn’t know about this side of Wilt, the average sports fan probably didn’t, either, and that this would be an opportunity to gather the stories and write a book about Wilt.  And here we are, five and a half years later.

Q:     What was the most surprising thing you learned about Wilt in writing the book?

RC:    I didn’t really find one great surprise.   I set myself the task of writing the most comprehensive book about Wilt’s life on and off the basketball court.  I wanted to answer the question, to my satisfaction if no one else’s, why Wilt’s teams didn’t win more championships.  I must have read 3,000 to 5,000 newspaper stores about Wilt and interviewed his teammates and the opposing players at every level—high school, college and the professional years.  Looking over the box scores and newspaper accounts, I found—and think I document the case—that Wilt was not the reason his teams failed to win more championships.  Even when his teams lost, Wilt’s stats and contributions were tremendous.  He almost always delivered for his team. As for Wilt off the court, I uncovered no great revelations but all the details about his life evoke a clear picture of this unique man.  I was impressed by the affection that Wilt’s friends and associates still hold toward him.  Wilt could be high maintenance—moody and unpleasant at times.  After his death, Wilt’s friends and associates could have complained about that aspect of his personality to me—or others.   But none of them did so.  I was also struck by how even to his friends and teammates Wilt was—and remains—larger than life.  They all had Wilt stories, which made them laugh, and in some cases, tear up, as they recalled their enigmatic, compelling friend or teammate.

Q:    Wilt, the player, was well before my time, but when he died I remember being in shock.  Even to the younger fans, Wilt was superhuman and not subject to laws nature that everyone else was.

RC:      That was my reaction, too.  And he wasn’t before my time.  Everyone considered him “Superman,” and in some respects, he was; but in others, of course, he was all-too-mortal, and died all-too-young at 63.  That said, I never realized how extraordinary Wilt’s constitution was until I began my research.  In running drills, he lapped teammates and he was always the fastest man on the team, including the guards.  One teammate told me that he never saw Wilt tired.  Wilt drank gallons of water and 7 Up and ran six miles a day until he had hip problems in the 1990s.  And he was incredibly strong.  Everyone marveled at, and told me stories about, his amazing strength.  When he was in his 50s, one friend related how he would curl 110-pound dumbbells as easy as most people life a telephone receiver.

Q:  What killed Wilt?

.,    Wilt died of heart disease.  Except for close friend, few people knew how sick he was the last couple of years of his life.  When he returned to Kansas to have his jersey retired [in January1998], he looked horrible—ashen skin, hollow eyes, excessive sweating.  I give the first detailed account of his last years and months, sad though they are.

Q:    Let’s go back to Wilt’s early years.  It struck me while Wilt was the epitome of cool later in life, his high school years were quite the opposite.

RC:    Theteenage years are awkward and insecure for everybody.  Wilt had all that and he was a foot taller than everyone else.   Wilt got better looking as got older—his head seemed to fit his body better.  At 17, Wilt’s head didn’t fit his body and his ears stuck out.  He was skinny—not the sculpted physique of his latter years.  You don’t have to dig to deep to realize that Wilt was very self conscious at that age and that he wasn’t the flamboyant, confident Wilt of his adult years.

Q:    Why did Wilt leave Kansas early?

RC:     His game wasn’t developing in college.  Opponents held the ball [there was no shot clock in the NCAA until the 1980s] and grabbed Wilt.   He wanted to earn money for himself and his family.  One of the first things he did when he turned professional was to buy a home for his parents.  Between these two factors it was a pretty clear cut decision to go pro.

Q:    Was it true that Wilt was hard to deal with personally?

RC:    Yes and no.  Wilt could be difficult, at times, especially when he didn’t respect a coach.    He liked playing for Frank McGuire, Alex Hannum and Bill Sharman, the last two of whom he played on championship teams with.  But even then, in the case of Hannum, there was tension and the success was short-lived.  Ironically, while they often argued, Alex Hannum and Wilt became very close after their basketball days ended; they both loved going to the track and betting on horses.

Q:    One of the more controversial portions of Wilt’s career was his exit from 76ers after the 1967-68 season.  Apparently, Wilt took the position that he deserved a part of the team and would not move from this point.  What exactly happened?

RC:       In mid-1964-65, the San Francisco Warriors traded Wilt back to Philly to the Sixers.  But Wilt didn’t want to go back to Philly and he threatened to retire at the end of the year.  The Sixers were owned by Ike Richman, who was Wilt’s lawyer and good friend, and Irv Kosloff.  Ike traded for Wilt despite the retirement threats.  Wilt said that Ike promised him, Wilt, 25% of the team.  Wilt and Ike had a father-son relationship.  Stan Lorber, who was both Ike and Wilt’s doctor, believes it likely that Ike promised Wilt part of the team. After all, Wilt was the best player in the NBA and Ike was wealthy so it isn’t unreasonable to believe that they had this understanding.  But Richman died suddenly and his partner Kosloff didn’t feel bound by what Wilt claimed was an oral agreement.  This dispute poisoned the relationship between Wilt and Kosloff.

Q:    It seemed the Wilt had a scorched earth policy in relationships with the teams he played.  Why do you think that is?

RC:    I agree with your observation.  As for why it happened—when it happened—it was part of Wilt’s personality.  There was some element of it in Wilt’s departure from Philadelphia in 1968, but life is complicated.  Wilt had other reasons to want to leave Philly for California in 1968.   His parents, with whom he was close, lived in California.  He owned an apartment house there.  And in California, it was easier for Wilt to date white women.  Remember, we’re talking about 1968—when it was not so acceptable for a black man to date white women as nowadays, when it is a non-issue.  Finally, Wilt was a huge star in Philadelphia—actually too big for the city of his and my birth—but in Los Angeles he was one of many celebrities, albeit always the most visible, and so had more privacy—though, in his case, privacy is a relative term. 

Q:    How much did you intend to write about Wilt and his relationship with Bill Russell and what did you learn about this relationship?

RC:    I intended to write a lot about it and I did.  I was pleased to see that, with one exception, Wilt and Russell were very magnanimous and always respectful toward each other.  The one exception was Russell’s criticism of Wilt after the 1968-69 Finals, as a result of which they didn’t speak for 20 years.  I tried to talk with Russell but I couldn’t get him to do an interview.

Q:    Through your research did you come to a conclusion about the debate over who was the better player?

RC:    It’s one of those great unanswerable sports debates.  If Russell and Wilt had reversed teams would Wilt have won as often as Russell did with the Celtics?  I can’t and don’t know the answer to this question but I think it’s pretty clear that Wilt would’ve won more than the two championships had he had Russell’s supporting cast.  In any case, my opinion is that Wilt was the greater center of the two.

Q:    I know that the Celtics, and Red Auerbach and Bob Cousy in particular, liked to tweak Wilt with comments about how Wilt couldn’t win the big one.  Was there any merit to this?  Did Russell have something that Wilt didn’t?

RC:    Yes, Russell played with 8 future hall of famers, 9 if you count Red Auerbach. Cousy said that Wilt didn’t elevate his teammates like Russell did.   But Wilt had to score for his teams to be competitive.  In the early years, Wilt scored more than 30% of his team’s points while Russell only had 12-15%.   Wilt blocked more shots than Russell.   Still, there is some merit to the observation that Russell had an intensity that Wilt, at times, lacked—or to the observer, seemed to lack.

Q:    You were able to get Butch van Breda Kolff to talk to you about Wilt? [Editor’s note: van Breda Kolff was Wilt’s coach on the 1968-69 Lakers.  They got along very poorly and clashed all year.  This feud culminated in the middle of the fourth quarter of game 7 of the 1968-69 Finals.  Wilt hurt his knee and had to leave the game at about the five minute mark of a tight game.  Van Breda Kolff refused to reinsert Wilt into the game, despite Wilt’s protest that he was ready to play a minute or so later.  The Lakers went on to lose the game and the series and Van Breda Kolff was fired]. Could van Breda Kolff explain why he chose to have Mel Counts remain in the game when Wilt was ready to return?

RC:    Wilt had hurt his knee, the same knee, incidentally, he would tear up the next year, so he was clearly hurting and had to leave the game.  Let me emphasize the point, since even the authors of sports books—I won’t name names—get it wrong: Wilt had to leave the game.  He could barely walk, much less run.  Russell’s statement that Wilt “copped out” of the game was dead wrong.  Even van Breda Kolff, no fan of Wilt, defends Wilt on this point   When Wilt said “I’m ready” a minute or so later, van Breda Kolff says he thought that Counts was doing better.  Counts did hit a couple of shots but he had started missing shots and Wilt could jump about two feet higher than Counts.  Who would you want playing at the end of the championship game—Wilt Chamberlain or Mel Counts?   I think van Breda Kolff wanted to show Wilt (and the world) that the Lakers could win without him.  But benching Wilt cost van Breda Kolff his professional coaching career. 

Q:    Did you interview [then 76ers GM] Jack Ramsay about Wilt?  I remember in “Season of the 76ers” Ramsay was critical of Wilt.

RC:    Yes,I interviewed Ramsay.  Much as I admire Jack Ramsay, I’m also aware that Wilt had criticized Ramsay in a book and human nature being what it is, Ramsay is not a huge Wilt fan.  Jack said that he thought Wilt was insecure and always felt unappreciated, with which I agree.  Given the choice between Wilt and Russell, Ramsay chooses Russell.  I factor in Wilt’s criticism of Jack Ramsay when I consider Ramsay’s choice.

Q:    What about Wilt’s relationship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

RC:    They didn’t like each other, though when Jabbar was young they had a teacher-student relationship.  I think the problem stemmed from competition about who was king.  Both had hang ups, as who does not.  They were abnormally tall, also famous, and black and that takes a toll.  The same was true to some extent with Russell and Wilt.

Q:    How would you compare Russell and Wilt as people?  Do you think their rivalry was personal too?

RC:    Everyone I spoke to said Russell was difficult to deal with and that Wilt was charming and fun to be around but high maintenance.  It’s reasonable to say that Russell envied Wilt’s his acclaim and flamboyant lifestyle and Wilt envied Russell’s all those championship rings.

Q:     Let’s talk a bit more about the criticism of Wilt’s inability to beat the Celtics.  From my readings, it seems that the Celtics generally had the better team.  But there were clearly a few times when Wilt had a least as good a team as Russell, most notably with some of the mid-1960s Sixers teams.  Do you think the criticism of Wilt for losing with respect to those teams was fair?

RC:    No, except in 1968, when I think, and write, that Wilt and his teammates blew it—there is no way the Celtics ought to have beaten the Sixers in the 1968 Eastern Finals.  The Sixers went up 3-1 in the series that year only to lose three straight games, two of which were home games.  In game seven, Wilt did not score much, though, as usual, he led everyone in rebounds gathered.  I examined this game very carefully.  That year, Wilt average 10-15 touches per quarter.  In the fourth quarter of game 7, Wilt had only two touches, and those were off of rebounds.  Even Wilt can’t score without the ball.   I blame all the Sixers for failing to get Wilt the ball—including Wilt who should have demanded the ball and not excluding the coach, Alex Hannum, who should have told his players to get the ball into Wilt.  They’re all to blame for the debacle in 1969, and I do so in the book.

Q:    What about 1968-69?  The Lakers had Wilt, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West and the Celtics were aging and decaying as a team?  It seemed to me that the Lakers were much better.

RC:    The 1968-69 Lakers just didn’t mesh.  The whole of the team was less than the sum of the parts.  Wilt and Baylor had problems about who would be “top dog” and Wilt and Van Breda Kolff hated each other.  No one says that West and Baylor were losers for being unable to beat Russell and the Celtics.  The fact is that the Lakers didn’t play well, and Boston was phenomenal.  They also had the luck of the Irish.  Sam Jones, falling down, hit a desperation shot to win one game in the series and Don Nelson hit that high bouncer in game 7.  Wilt played well in the series as a whole.  But in game 6, with the Lakers having a chance to clinch the series, Wilt came up short by my reckoning.  He had only 8 points.  Had Wilt had one of his vintage 30-point nights, there never even would’ve been a game 7 and the Mel Counts incident.  Game 6 was the most egregious example, in all my research, of Wilt not rising to the occasion in a big game and for which I criticize him.    I asked Jerry West about this and he said “sometimes it flows and sometimes it doesn’t.”  But I think this game is the one example of Wilt not quite having the intensity or killer instinct that Cousy alluded to.    I couldn’t imagine Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan failing to rise to the occasion in similar circumstances.

Q:    Who are your top five centers of All-Time?

RC:    My top five are:

1.    Wilt

2.    Shaquille O’Neal

3.    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

4.    Bill Russell

5.    Hakeem Olajuwon

I give Wilt a slight edge over Shaq.  I would’ve loved to see them play against one another.  The reason I give Wilt the edge is that Wilt had more stamina and Wilt was faster and would beat Shaq down the court, especially late in the game; and, without doubt, Wilt could jump higher than Shaq—so I give him the edge in rebounding and defense.  Both would score lots of points, but overall I lean towards Wilt.

Q:    Who’s the best basketball player of All-Time?

RC:    Given Michael Jordan’s intensity, his will to win, and his record, you have to say that he is the greatest player of All-Time.  Yet, if I were starting a team I’d pick Wilt first.   That may sound or read as inconsistent but that is what I’d do.  When he wanted to, no one could dominate a basketball game like Wilt Chamberlain, including Michael Jordan.

Q:    Robert, thank you very much for your time.

RC:    My pleasure.

“Wilt: Larger Than Life” is published by Triumph Books.  It can be ordered online at WebOrders@triumphbooks.com or by calling 1-800-335-5323.