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Wilts As a Cultural Phenomenon
, May 8, 2005
Wilt Chamberlain was a true athletic phenomenon, as special to his sport as Babe Ruth had been to his 40 years earlier, and author Gary Pomerantz, who started his professional career as a sportswriter, does an excellent job of showing why Chamberlain was so important to the NBA.
But Pomerantz does much more than that. He takes the reader on a tour of Chamberlain's multi-layered life, showing how he rose above, literally and figuratively, the prejudice of the time. When he played at Kansas, restaurants were racially segregated - but not for Wilt. He dated many women, and wasn't particular whether they were black, tan or white. The NBA had informal quotas but with Chamberlain's dominance, the quotas became irrelevant and fell away.
Pomerantz uses the framework of the game itself, an otherwise obscure event between the Philadelphia Warriors in Hershey, Pa. that wasn't even covered by the New York press, to weave in his social messages.
One of the most evocative passages describes Wilt striding through the Harlem nightclub he had a small part of, "Big Wilt's Small Paradise," among the black icons of the time and the white patrons, comfortable in both worlds but somehow apart from both as well.
The book captures beautifully an era when life and basketball were so much different than they are today, and I recommend it highly.