It was a surprise. I had hoped the U.S. Postal Service would do this, but I never believed it would. For it’s easy to forget, a generation after the man last played a game, how splendid a player Wilt Chamberlain was.
But news came out the other day that the post office, indeed, would put “Wilt the Stilt” on a postage stamp. He will join a collection of famous Black athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Larry Doby and Willie Stargell who have been on stamps.
The decision to add Wilt to that list didn’t come without struggles. For Wilt, his extraordinary talent aside, wasn’t the likeable, loveable figure that a big man like Shaquille O’Neal was, and no one might be talking about Wilt and postage stamps if not for the tireless effort of one journalist.
Don Hunt, a sports journalist for The Philadelphia Tribune, launched his put-Wilt-on-a-stamp campaign six years ago. He reached out to other Black sportswriters and others around Philadelphia, Wilt’s hometown, for their support, and Hunt got that support.
Yet to applaud anybody but Hunt would be to put praise where it doesn’t rightly belong. The fact is clear: Absent Hunt’s effort, Chamberlain would not be the first NBA player — of any color — on a postage stamp.
In a time when athletes of the past get short shrift, Chamberlain should not find his name among the forgotten Black legends of yesteryear. The list of those who are forgotten is already too long. Ask hoops-crazy youth of today about Elgin Baylor or K.C. Jones or Bob Lanier or Zelmo Beatty or Nate Thurmond or Gus Johnson, and you can expect to see a look of bewilderment.
Who are these guys?
Well, during their careers, they were the stars that Black youth cheered for or booed. They were the stars who anchored the better teams of the 1960s and ’70s, and Wilt was one of them.
Don Hunt didn’t want anybody in America to forget that fact either. No one should forget it, because if any athlete was larger than life, Wilt Chamberlain would have to be that athlete. He was a big man before big men really were big men. His size forced the NBA to rework some of its rules to lessen his dominance.
All of that, though, is tales-from-the-crypt stuff. Unless you saw Wilt in person or on TV — Hunt did — you had no reason to remember his contributions to the game. Who saw any of his signature performances, despite the 10 million people who swear they were in Hershey, Pa., the night of March 2, 1962, when he scored 100 points as the Philadelphia Warriors beat the New York Knicks, 169-147?
The NBA Encyclopedia, the sport’s bible, says this about Wilt: “With 72 records (68 of which he holds by himself), Wilt Chamberlain dominates the NBA record book. And he's not just the top guy. … In several cases, he's No. 1, 2 and 3. It's hard to believe that there will ever be another player who can dominate as many statistical categories as the Big Dipper did.”
Hunt and a generation of basketball fans from yesteryear agree. They can argue that no player ever performed at Wilt’s level; they can argue that he’s the best player ever, even though his career brought him just two NBA titles.
Titles aren’t necessarily the standard we ought to use to judge greatness. While they carry some weight, they can’t mask the reality that, often, the best team doesn’t have the best player. Wilt was rarely on the best NBA team, but he was always in any talk about the best player of his time.
Don Hunt made that argument in his relentless lobbying to get a stamp in Wilt’s honor, and Hunt’s argument won the day. It got Wilt his postage stamp and just maybe it got Wilt something I thought the big man had long lost amid the nowadays hoopla about Michael, Kobe and some dude named LeBron: Wilt got his due.
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Follow Justice B. Hill on Twitter: @jbernardh
(Photo: WEN ROBERTS/AFP/Getty Images)