At Kansas, the Dipper's focus was not on the classroom. Discus thrower Al Oerter, winner of gold medals for four consecutive Olympics from 1956 to 1968, shared a business class with Chamberlain at KU. He always noticed when Chamberlain was there, which by Oerter's estimate was "one out of ten [classes]." Oerter looked up from his final examination and saw a small white student signing his name on the exam as "Wilt Chamberlain." Oerter whispered to the student, "Somehow you don't look like Wilt." Oerter trained with Chamberlain during Kansas's outdoor track and field season; they shared side-by-side lockers. The Dipper's strength and massive skeletal structure impressed Oerter. Chamberlain wanted to become a decathlete, no doubt to prove his strength and endurance in the most physically demanding of Olympic events. The Kansas track coach asked Oerter to instruct the Dipper how to throw the discus. Because of his height, Chamberlain struggled with the throwing motion, though his raw power amazed Oerter. He also saw that when Chamberlain placed his hand on a sixteen-pound shot, his fingers wrapped around it and touched his palm. These would become problems for the Dipper if he hoped to become a world-class decathlete. (The pole vault event especially worried Chamberlain: "I'd get way up there, then find myself with a lot of legs.") After a workout in spring 1957, Oerter saw the roly-poly Abe Saperstein appear in the locker room beneath the KU stadium. He heard Saperstein offer Chamberlain one-third ownership of the Globetrotters if he signed with the team at that moment. Eavesdropping, Oerter heard the Dipper say he wasn't interested, at least not yet.
Chamberlain found his escape from Jim Crow segregation in Lawrence by driving to the vibrant African-American community in Kansas City, a city known in the 1930s as the Paris of the Plains. There, Maurice King, his lone black teammate at KU and a native of Kansas City, showed him the nightclubs along 18th and Vine, a street corner immortalized in song by Joe Turner as being where "The boys jump and swing until broad daylight." For the Dipper, Kansas City was a revelation. With King, he heard jazz jam sessions at nightclubs such as the Blue Room and El Capitan, played summer basketball games down the street at the Negro YMCA, and met former Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro baseball leagues Buck O'Neil, Satchel Paige, and Wilbur "Bullet" Rogan. He also met the colorful former Globetrotter Goose Tatum. King once had seen Tatum being chauffeured by his wife down 18th Street well, actually he saw only Tatum's bare feet sticking out the back of his convertible. As a kid, Chamberlain had idolized Tatum and relished the chance to know him. Tatum had a deft hook shot and, after converting one, was known to ask his opponent, "How'd you like that, young white boy?" He let the Dipper drive his car a few times, and together they made a trip to Detroit, Tatum's hometown.
At KU, Chamberlain briefly hosted his own radio show, "Flippin' with the Dipper," where he spun his favorite records, mostly jazz and the blues. (Years earlier, KU basketball star Clyde Lovellette had a show at the same radio station and played country music and was accompanied by Lester, his mythical hound dog.) King remembers that the Dipper's arrival challenged segregated practices at the movie theater and lunch counters in Lawrence. Before, King and his Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers had been forced to sit in a section of the theater reserved for blacks. But when the Dipper joined the fraternity, "Nobody ever asked us to leave or refused us service," King would say. "They really wanted to cater to Wilt." Once, as Chamberlain drove along the new turnpike en route to Kansas City, a police car's flashing blue lights appeared behind his souped-up red and white Oldsmobile convertible. Sitting next to the Dipper, King tensed but only until the police officer, realizing it was Wilt Chamberlain's car, turned off his lights and drove away. Chamberlain would say often over the ensuing years, "I single-handedly integrated Kansas," and counted it among his proudest achievements. In truth, his was an integration of one. Because of his celebrity Chamberlain was granted honorary "white" status in Lawrence, but his actions did not diminish racial segregation there in any lasting way.
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|ESPN BOOK CLUB|
Check out these other ESPN Book Club selections:|
• April: "All Those Mornings At the Post," collected writings of Shirley Povich
• February: "The Miracle of St. Anthony" by Adrian Wojnarowski
• January: "Unforgivable Blackness" by Geoffrey C. Ward
• November: "When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan's Last Comeback" by Michael Leahy
• October: "Friday Night Lights" by H.G. Bissinger
Saperstein got his man in 1958. Kansas Coach Dick Harp was working in his yard when the Dipper drove up. Chamberlain's car was already packed. He told Harp he had accepted an offer from Saperstein. He thanked Harp and left for Saperstein's one-year contract that, with guarantees, would pay him $65,000; this at a time when the average NBA player's salary was less than $10,000. With the Globetrotters, Chamberlain entered a world of slapstick entertainment, a basketball minstrel show. He made that choice for a simple reason money. As racial strife in the South intensified, the Globetrotters performed yuk-it-up comedy that white crowds, particularly in the South, found comforting and unthreatening. With the Trotters, the Dipper joined teammates nicknamed Gipper and Ripper. He became a seven-foot-one guard and played so many games in his unwashed sweaty uniform that he wore Band-Aids over his nipples to keep the skin from rubbing raw. He reveled in the camaraderie with teammates. On bus trips, he was known to open two cans of salmon, two loaves of bread, and two cartons of milk and pass them around. He tried to blend in on the court with the more established Globetrotters stars but only until Saperstein showed up in the locker room at halftime to make a plea to his big-money gate attraction: "You gotta shoot more, Wilt. You gotta score." He traveled to Milan and Moscow and Germany and Switzerland, drawing attention from foreigners who had never seen a man so tall and impressing them by lifting the backs of cars to announce his strength. He chased women of all different races and nations along the way. That's what the Globetrotters did, Chamberlain quickly learned, first and foremost. The greatest girl hounds I've ever seen. The Globetrotters called their comedy acts "reams." If a Globetrotter spotted a pretty woman in the crowd, he'd write his name, hotel, and room number on a slip of paper, hide it in his mouth or in his jockstrap, and connive a ream to approach the pretty woman whereupon he would secretly hand her the note "dropping the bomb," they called it. The Dipper began to see himself as an entertainer. Playing in Germany on a plywood floor laid atop a dusty soccer field, Chamberlain watched five-foot-seven Louis "Red" Klotz steal the ball from him and chortle, "You're in my country now, Wilt." But moments later Klotz fell to the floor, dust swirling all around him, and suddenly he felt a big shoe on his back. Klotz looked up and saw Wilt towering over him and saying, "Now you're in my country, Red."