Most-fascinating athletes for a sports fanatic in his impressionable teenage years: football players Jim Brown and Bobby Lee Bell, baseball player Willie Mays, boxer Muhammad Ali and golfer Arnold Palmer.
Years later, these excellent happenings took place for a longtime sportswriter:
• Waited several days for a call from Brown for an interview on an upcoming documentary when the phone rang one night at 10, and he talked for well over an hour. Fantastic.
• Several encounters with Bell, the greatest gridiron Gopher of all, including at a Twins exhibition game in Fort Myers, Fla., when I was able to go to the home dugout and say to instructors Rod Carew and Tony Oliva, “Bobby Bell’s up there and wants to say hello.”
• Ninety minutes with Mays in the Say Hey Suite at the Giants’ ballpark, along with Strib photographer Jerry Holt, for a pre-All-Star Game story in 2014.
• An hour with The Greatest, watching him observe magic tricks by local maestro Hondo, when Muhammad was in town for a Harvey Mackay book signing.
• Gets no better than joining Palmer for breakfast and overhearing The King’s good-natured barbs toward his host and friend, Hollis Cavner, tournament director for the 3M Championship.
Clean sweep. Almost. There’s one more athlete from that most-fascinating list and he might be No. 1: Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain.
Never met Wilt or interviewed him by phone.
Except, there was that time …
The Dons from the University of San Francisco won back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. The stars were center Bill Russell and guard K.C. Jones, later legendary components in the Boston Celtics’ dynasty.
San Francisco’s dominance drew enough attention to make college basketball much more of a national sport than had been the case.
Russell concluded his college career on March 23, 1956, in an 83-71 victory over Iowa that made the Dons the NCAA’s first unbeaten champion (29-0).
Chamberlain had spent that winter playing for the Kansas freshmen, as frosh were ineligible for varsity competition.
He was the first high school phenom on a national level of my lifetime. I knew the hometowns of selected Gophers, but Wilt was the only athlete from the bigger universe that you knew about when he was in high school:
Wilt Chamberlain, the 7-footer from Overbrook in Philadelphia.
Chamberlain arrived in Lawrence, Kan., with a pair of nicknames administered by competing Philly sportswriters: “Wilt the Stilt” and “Goliath.”
He also was called “The Big Dipper.” That was Chamberlain’s preferred nickname, since it came from Wilt’s boyhood friends, in honor of his being required to dip his head when going through school doorways.
As a Kansas sophomore, Chamberlain led the Jayhawks to a Big Seven title that put them in the 23-team NCAA tournament.
Kansas went to Dallas for the Midwest Regional and defeated SMU and Oklahoma State. The Dallas crowds shouted racial abuse and threw debris at Chamberlain and his teammates.
The final four (lowercase in those days) was played in Kansas City. San Francisco was Kansas’ semifinal opponent. Russell and K.C. were both rookies with the Celtics.
Kansas ended San Francisco’s run at a third consecutive title with an 80-56 route. The Jayhawks then lost 54-53 in three overtimes to North Carolina in the title game. Chamberlain scored 55 points with 25 rebounds in the two games and was named the Most Outstanding Player.
Wilt’s next season did not go nearly as well. The Jayhawks suffered attrition. Chamberlain tired of the triple-teams and opponents holding the ball (there was no shot clock).
The NBA wouldn’t let players enter the league until their college class had graduated. So Wilt got creative and signed with Abe Saperstein and the Harlem Globetrotters for the then-kingly sum of $50,000.
And thus it came to be, on Jan. 10, 1959 — in Worthington High School’s new gymnasium with bleachers to hold 3,000 people — that as a 13-year-old, I met Wilt.
Wilt and the Globetrotters had played in St. Paul on Friday night, in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Saturday afternoon, in Worthington that Saturday night and would be in Lincoln, Neb., on Sunday.
The headline in the Worthington Daily Globe on Monday afternoon read: “3,045 See Trotters; 200 Turned Away.”
When Richard Reusse is your father, and the Globetrotters are appearing 18 miles away — with Wilt! — you don’t get turned away. We were eight rows from the court, and with some taller heads and men’s hats of the era in the way, you still could see Wilt.
The Daily Globe’s photo showed Wilt dunking, but what dazzled that day was Chamberlain shooting long jumpers and making them.
“Woo!”, we rubes from deep in the southwest corner of the state gasped every time Wilt made a jumper from deep on the court. And after that day, I spent years of NBA watching rooting for The Big Dipper to beat Russell and those danged Celtics, which happened once, or was it twice?
I also claim that being in the Worthington gym 61 years ago, almost close enough to have him hear a “Hey, Wilt” shout, gives me that clean sweep of encountering the most-fascinating athletes from my youth.
Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and including his name in the subject line.