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Q&A: Wilt Chamberlain biographer Robert Cherry

The Wynnewood author watched Chamberlain from afar at Overbrook High School, but Cherry's 2004 book, Wilt: Larger Than Life, is an insightful look at the legend's personal life, career and enduring legacy.

By J.F. Pirro

Photo by Jared CastaldiWynnewood’s Robert Cherry came along six years after Wilt Chamberlain, both in the classroom and on the court at Overbook High School. But it wasn’t until after Chamberlain’s 1999 funeral that Cherry read about the terminally ill granddaughter of Philadelphia Warriors player Paul Arizin. For the final months of 16-year-old Stephanie Arizin’s life, Wilt called her nearly every Friday night. The story deeply affected Cherry, inspiring him to write Wilt: Larger Than Life. To prep for this interview—in honor of the 50th anniversary of Chamberlain’s landmark 100-point game on March 3, 1962—Cherry visited Barnes & Noble for anything new on the legend. On the shelves, he found a softcover version of his 2004 book. “It felt great,” he says.

MLT: Describe your own encounters with Chamberlain.
RC: Wilt was always part of my life. A sister was in Wilt’s class, and he attended her 1955 graduation party in my backyard. I was 12 or 13. Another time, I saw him alone at the airport, carrying that little gym bag of his. You’d think he’d have an entourage, but he was always a loner. Then there was the basketball camp in the Poconos in 1960. I vividly remember standing next to him. He was wearing a Ban-Lon shirt and slacks. I looked at his forearms, and they reminded me of a champion thoroughbred’s legs. The veins and muscles in his arms looked like steel cables.

MLT: Were you in Hershey the night Wilt scored 100?
RC: No, I was at a college dance. Though just 4,124 were there, many more claim they were, even noting to Wilt on occasion that they “saw it at Madison Square Garden.” Wilt never corrected them.

MLT: With 46 seconds left, did the game end—or is that a misnomer?
RC: The game was stopped, but when it resumed, Wilt stood at half-court. He didn’t want to score his 101st or 102nd point. He stood there—and even he didn’t believe the game was played to the end, until he heard an audiotape of the last 46 seconds. No film of the game exists, which adds to the mystique.
 

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MLT: Did Chamberlain really sleep with 20,000 women?
RC: Wilt had to be No. 1 at everything; it was part of his insecurity. He should’ve said he was single and liked women, and left it at that, but he published that number in one of his books. For Wilt, everything was viewed from the top down. I interviewed two of the women. The trouble with his claim is that, a month later, Magic Johnson announced that he had HIV.

MLT: Wilt was 63 when he died. What if he’d lived longer?
RC: He would’ve become more gregarious and basked in the glow. His whole life, he couldn’t hide; his size dictated that. Wilt once said that even Elvis could hide by putting on a fake mustache or a hat. Wilt couldn’t, and there were times he wanted anonymity. He craved it. It’s sad he died [so early].  

MLT: Why couldn’t Chamberlin’s teams ever beat Bill Russell’s Celtics?
RC: There were nine reasons: seven other Boston Celtics that Russell played with who made the Hall of Fame—plus Red Auerbach, their coach. It’s a team game, and only a team can win. Wilt was never on a team as consistent as the Celtics, though he was on two of the greatest teams of all time, the 1966-67 Sixers and the 1971-72 Lakers.
 

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MLT: You played basketball at Overbrook, but after graduating from Penn State in 1965, joined the Peace Corps and were stationed on the West Coast of Liberia in Africa. How did you become a writer?
RC: My first job in journalism was at the Main Line Times. Though I wasn’t in sports, the sports editor let me interview Red Smith after a speaking engagement at Episcopal Academy. He was the most famous syndicated columnist at the time, and after lunch at the Marriott on City Line Avenue, I drove back with him to New York, then took a train home. It was that clip that went to the Arizona Republic, where Smith and the city editor were Notre Dame University alumni. It won me a writing job [in Arizona] for a few years, before I left for a New York food magazine.

MLT: In your book’s prologue, you don’t emphasize basketball so much as a series of juxtapositions. Why?
RC: I wanted to give a taste of the breadth and depth of Wilt’s personality, while working in the notion that, “Oh yeah, he played basketball, too.” But it’s about all the other things the average person wouldn’t know—that Wilt looked at the stars with a telescope, that he was learning to play the saxophone in the last months of his life, that the Globetrotters were his favorite team, that he carried $5,000 to $10,000 in cash all the time, thinking, “Who’s going to rob me?”

MLT: How laborious was your research?
RC: Over five years, I read as many as 5,000 news articles, made two trips to Kansas (where Chamberlain played in college), had three 10-day stays in Los Angeles and had countless visits with those who knew him best. I felt qualified to write this man’s life. Next to his immediate family, at the end, I knew more than anyone. It’s thorough, and I’m proud of that.

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