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Larger than Life

Wilt Chamberlain thought of himself as larger-than-life. How could it have been otherwise? He was always taller than everybody else. He was so tall when he was five that he was able to convince the neighborhood milkman to give him a job making deliveries. He was always stronger than anybody else. By the time he was playing basketball in high school, he'd learned to restrain himself for fear he would hurt somebody if he didn't.

But Chamberlain also liked to think himself as more knowledgeable than those around him; more well-read, more open-minded...the list goes on. He was going to speak from on high, whether he liked it or not, so he learned to like it. In fact, by most accounts, he learned to relish it, and that side of Wilt Chamberlain is apparent in "Wilt: Larger than Life," Robert Cherry's biography of basketball's single most dominant player.

So are other sides. Mr. Cherry found that Wilt was a generous friend to a wide range of people and an excellent listener when struck by the inclination to listen. He was genuinely curious about other people, and he brought to his own celebrity a perspective that lots of professional athletes never achieve. As Robert Cherry points out, Wilt was bemused and sometimes discouraged by the way people sought him out for autographs and handshakes when they might have pursued writers, scientists, or astronauts. Beyond that, unlike a lot of great performers, Wilt was a fan. He supported volleyball and track teams and enthusiastically followed the women's tennis tour.

Wilt Chamberlain's book about himself, "A View From Above," is remembered for the boast Chamberlain made regarding the number of women he'd entertained in bed. Unhappily, though claiming he'd had 20,000 sexual partners probably helped sell copies of the book, it certainly branded Chamberlain as a fool. According to Robert Cherry, Chamberlain had doubts about the number in "A View From Above," but he let himself be talked into the decision, and very soon came to regret what he'd written.

The book meant to help establish Chamberlain as an accomplished, complex, and interesting man ended up making him the punchline for a lot of bad jokes and casting him as a cartoon figure.

Happily, "Wilt: Larger than Life" accomplishes what Wilt's own book could not.

This program aired on November 12, 2004. The audio for this program is not available.

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