The Way We Look at Giants

  • It ought to be remembered that, as indisputably great a player as Wilt Chamberlain was, he often evoked a public awe closer to loathing than admiration. "No one roots for Goliath," he lamented to his Los Angeles Lakers teammate Jerry West. The observation was both personally felt and generally interesting in what it says about the way people look at giants. Size (which matters) is an accident of biology, but we tend to treat it as an implicit assault on the averageness of the rest of us--a potential menace, an insulting excess--and there is a universal desire to see the big man fall.

    Chamberlain, who died last week at the age of 63, not only dominated basketball, his presence clarified the character of the game. If sports were poems, baseball would be a sonnet, basketball free verse; the thing finds its form according to who is doing it. Chamberlain was responsible for major rule changes that altered basketball's structure--all delimiting the ability of giants to operate in the sky over a 10-ft.-high basket. By his athleticism, he proved that basketball required the world's best athletes, not simply the tallest. And, in a way, he also showed it to be a team sport. No matter how talented an individual is, no one player, including the divine Michael, can beat a well-coordinated group of five.

    Quantity defined his life and was its curse. His statistics, like his being, seemed to have no relation to a terrestrial reality. On March 2, 1962, he set an NBA record by scoring 100 points in a game against the New York Knicks. He scored the most points in a season (4,029); had 50 or more points in a game 118 times; set the record for career rebounds (23,924), rebounds per game (22.9), average points in one season (50.4). Other numbers recalled last week: seven straight scoring titles and 11 rebound titles (in 14 seasons). To show how complete a player he was, his most remarkable stat may be that in 1968, he led the league in assists.

    His wildest statistic--a boast made in his autobiography, and later regretted--that he had slept with 20,000 women, is noteworthy only in that it seemed more mathematically than physically improbable. Unquantified, though, were the many charities he supported, the causes he backed and the innumerable kindnesses to friends, who were steadfast and few. He lived alone and never married.

    Not once did he foul out of a game, which says something about the way he played and who he was. Chamberlain hardly ever got into a fight--partly because only the ostentatiously suicidal would start up with him, more because he seemed to appreciate the gentleness that his construction required. He picked opposing players off the floor when they tripped and fell. That weird shot of his--the monstrous and graceful Dipper Dunk--had the look of a man pouring lava from a vat into a teacup.

    In a newspaper article he wrote in 1973, he complained about a gawking public who "demean and degrade my dignity." Few could know, he said, what it meant to be 7 ft. tall. "Hell, even [jockey] Willie Shoemaker doesn't have my problem. At least everyone was his size once." Height accounted for merely part of his gianthood. I once went down to courtside at halftime to get a closer look at him. His hands were the size of easy chairs, his head, nose, eyes, everything colossal. And he was standing around with some of the biggest men on Earth.

    For this alone--for this inhuman dimension--he was frequently reviled. He was not only too big, he was too everything, and so no one other than hometown fans ever wanted him to win. Winning for Goliath was simply not ordained, and when on occasion he did win (his two NBA championships), well, something had gone terribly wrong--a cosmic injustice. Never mind that men always want to be taller. This one overdid it and had to be punished.

    Writing about the nature of laughter, the French philosopher Henri Bergson said that anything that defies or distorts the human form is funny. But giants are rarely funny. When they are not menacing, they are pitiable. People do not like bigness, even when they are impressed by it. There are sound reasons for fearing the recent megamergers of corporations, but there is also the irrational reaction that we do not like the idea of anything that makes puny our control, our self-regard, our size. Thus the insults "Big man! Big shot!" Thus the derisive "Big deal!" Thus Wilt.

    He disliked the nickname "the Stilt," but he embraced the name "Dipper," which became "Big Dipper." He called his boat and his house Ursa Major. "It has a certain beauty and power and grace and majesty," he wrote. "And it represents something real, enduring, eternal. It's not just a nursery-rhyme reference to my height or some inanimate object." He added, "It's bigger than life itself," not indicating how hard that was to bear.