Playing Wilt Chamberlain
By Frank Diamond
Based on the exploits of William E. Lindsay in the 1953 Philadelphia high school basketball championship game.
And then there was Wilt. He did not play in freshman year this game he deemed for sissies. Too shy to let greatness break out. His contained talent whispering like radiator steam.
But in 1953, the Overbrook Highlanders’ coaches threw elbows while dragging Chamberlain to heights to show him the gaudy glories of a shifting world’s temptations.
And where were the West Catholic Burrs in 1953? We’d lost nine players — including five starters — to university, the factories, and the military. (And one got married, but on the hush-hush.)
“Fellows, we are going to repeat!” Coach Usilton vows. But something crests above the best-made prayers, Leviathan and deep, shadowing our circled endeavors the rest of the year.
Wilt the game-changer rebuilds life (and being and nothingness) in his image. For the God of our fathers reveals Himself in numbers, where mere opinion cannot fix the die.
What He created in His image keeps creation rolling and roiling. And lifelong records record what fails to be restored in Wilt Chamberlain’s game. Gaze, now, and be amazed.
In 1953, we Burrs went 24 and 2 while the Highlanders rolled to 18 and 1. A fluke loss because the Stilt wouldn’t bend to the Boss. Said no, and wouldn’t take it back that night.
This Negro youth, two years before Rosa Parks refused to move, refused to shoot to spite his coach’s addytude. They had to talk it over afterward to reach an understanding.
We win three by two points and five by four while Wilt and company drinks the marrow from their all-too-easy kill. Teams that run like the wildebeest hunted upon the Serengeti.
As if the National Basketball Association stops by to slaughter high school drama. “Save it for your Momma!” The smallest of Wilt’s victory margins in ’53? 28 points, baby.
No need to time the stars to trace the Big Dipper. Gihugic? Already six feet, eleven inches tall, but also graceful, quick, strong, and oh so smart. “He can’t be beat.”
No foe’s chances stand and no grants of mercy bestowed. Opposing fans line up after blowaways and snag the embryonic star’s autograph. Once started machine can’t be slowed.
The night we take the Catholic League title, Coach Usilton says, “We’re not done. They’ve got Wilt Chamberlain but curante tubam occupant artus? I am just showing off.”
We play and pray. The recent future coruscates as soon as Coach Usilton sings that architect’s ballad about his ingenious ballet for a defense built mainly on me: Sean “Harpo” Lanigan.
This red-haired, whirling, druid, dervish dude – freckles. Freckles galore on porcelain skin and hair a color no fireman’s seen – will will drive the publics and their star away from Catholic shores for sure.
For the bigger the situation, the calmer my zone. Just DNA’d that way. Time waits for no boy but it sure as shooting slows for me as I survey without looking, then display with flash.
Virtue is what virtue overcomes, so I take no credit because fear flops lazily at Harpo’s feet. Too stupid to be frightened, too young and plain overjoyed in my lane-strained brain.
Coach on the move makes us move as well. Because West Catholic’s grungy basement gymnasium ceiling too lowly sighs and in those crowded accouterments we can’t let ’er fly.
It makes us drill line drives and you know that now that just won’t do. Tracers can be tracked. So we cop a breeze down the street to the old Arena where we mine the ally-oop.
Letting those high arcs triumph. “Come on, snake! Let’s rattle! Agitate the gravel!” Fade-aways, jump shots, and floaters in practices closed to all but special guests of Coach’s.
There’s Brother Aloysius standing athwart the driven train. Six feet and 2-9-0 pounds and armed — oh, bother — with a window pole. An earthen avatar, fierce and unforgiven.
The Angel Gabriel’s sword slashes and smites our best-laid plays. “Adjust!” Coach Usilton yells. “We breed a different strain of Chamberlain’s new game! For God’s sake, boys, adjust!”
Set a cafeteria table with a junior dart, flying from end to upend with flickering, lightning-loaded swats. “Shoot low! They’re riding Shetlands!” “Dismount to make it count!”
Coach Usilton says we battle height, but also an amazing grace. But speed? Well, speed belongs to the West Catholic Burrs. Dig deeper. Speed, in fact, belongs to me. I own it.
Olde Da imbibed but not that much for beer made him thoughtful and morose. My head tilts as I squint through bathroom clouds a-dancing to behold the ritual of his shaving rock.
Textile mills rumbled away from Brotherly Love one-by-one-by-one bygones. Chugga, chugga, rump, rump! Chugga, chugga, rump, rump! Chugga, chugga, rump, rump, screech!
We’d sunk into the project when I turned 8. Confronted by that fall’s mystery: perverted, pervasive, persuasive hate that, they say, beats indifference, but who took that poll?
White kids chased me and I found almighty speed. Black kids accepted me with my hair so much like theirs and yet different in its way. Wiry bottom to top, unevenly cut, a mop.
Glorious projection! My guardians on a street where flags flap-note black dads’ sacrifice in a war winding toward a victory nap. They’ll always have Parris Island. (“I’m keeping the danged gun!”)
I am the body electric. I am the garlanded laser disrupting laissez-faire. The wheel’s coy cog becoming the wheel itself but… “Dominus vobiscom! Et cum quadriqus spirtu tuo!”
March 6, 1953. Tickets for this high school riot sell out in fifteen minutes while another 4,000 get turned at the gate. Phillies played .500 last year; Eagles, went 7–5. So, tag, we’re it.
I pray for Philadelphia that Sunday before the contest. And I gaze above the priest’s back and call upon the saints: “Omnes Sancti et Sanctae Dei, ora pro me.” Whenever you’re ready, that is.
The night before the match I nod into deepest comfort and pile up the Z’s because a moment in a dream crosses over and becomes the dream itself. I think, therefore I can.
An avalanche of applause collapses upon the Burrs as we strike onto the wood. “Look to your new-found courage, young man, for that is the way to the stars!” Handle: Virgil.
A clearing in that trail of tiers reveals the greatest basketball player of all, that’s all. Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and especially Kareem careens upon his foundation.
There stands W. Chamberlain, a bull at ease with greatness weighed against legend, bringing well-honed tools and natural craft to work upon a surging structure. What a sight!
Wilton Norman Chamberlain’s innate shyness melts between the lines as he casually shoots baskets while shooting shite with all his mateys. All eyes his way; he’s used to it.
Glancing now and then at the crowd that moats his ego and shouldering off chips of bigotry that knows not its name for many, many turns. He’s heard it all before; or of it anyway.
“A credit to his race.” “Separate but equal (we hope).” “They’ve got that rhythm, don’t they?” “All in good time. Why rush?” “For your own good.” “Some of my best friends….”
And knows the names too well. Big boog. Spade. Coon. Ape. Spearchucker. Mulunyon. Tar baby. And, of course, n—–. Etceteraetceteraetcetera! Et! Ad infinitum et nauseam.
Wilt ignores ignoble hatred and pushes prejudice out of bounds. A stoic, stalwart, and steely new fact of life that bends bigotry while binding the blinded to their seats.
And even we Burrs pause to wonder at this building tsunami of talent. He stretches as if to reach the corners of the world. Then Coach Usilton yells, “Go!” and I lay a patch doing a layup.
“Come on pals, let’s kick can!” I plead. When Wilt casts an eyeball our sockets lock and load—the coming contest sold. We hold unblinkingly. “You’ve met your match!” Says who?
Our moment travels a second per second per seconds while “tempus edax rerum,” except when two strong men (yes!) stand face to face. He does not razz my berries. He shrugs and looks away.
Alma Maters and fight songs, then allegiance to the flag. With a tap the war begins. The future now rewinds. As four Burrs stick to Chamberlain. And his four teammates? Mine.
“Wilt! Wilt! Wilt!” slingshots the house and wilt he does indeed. The Big Dipper — confused, concerned, conflicted, and just trying to adjust — hesitates a half second, maybe less.
He passes, but gets it right back. Highlanders feed him, know no other way. He dribbles, stops, and shoots. Shanks it and I grab that non-rebound, dash and kiss it sweetly in. Yes!
“Harpo! Harpo! Harpo!” That’s the last song I will hear that game. For the ball is all, not my name. The team. The nets. The boards. The lanes. And all the moving parts galore.
Fear dulls the prey-ish glimmer in the eyes of the unchosen four. Their shackled star can’t do it all tonight. No. They need to rise and score. Maybe greatness rubs off on supporting roles.
Instead they lower sanity into the well that has not yet come up dry and pass to Wilt continuously. But that does not work on this night, when this center cannot hold.
What of Harpo’s coverage of the four? Tired, am I? I do not even know the meaning of that grody word. The need that forever seeds me, feeds me, frees me. Who needs legs to fly?
Hydro-ing like a Jesus bug on a pond I now call me home. Harpo Lanigan runs down happiness and they can barely track my weaves among trees rotting by the slow lane.
Bounding off bodies while deciphering codes in their eyes on the fly. For every action, there is tonight an unequal…. Shoulder to elbow, elbow to head. Who owns the right of sway?
Stampeding like horses in a box ninety-four by fifty. Biting and chuffing, holding and pushing. Someone tried to gouge. In Latin class not long ago we tackled Virgil’s onomatopoeia.
“Quadruped ante putrem sonit quatit ungula campum!” The fellowship of war and sport that speaks of heroes, hubris, and the dirty play. Only a priest in the confessional needs to know.
“You don’t hold me, you can’t cover me,” I growl. A whistle brakesbreaks the charge. And as an idol’s engine idles, one image to Harpo revelates: Best and me and the all-erasing snow.
Entering a zone where all stays quiet and shifts to slow. And cured of mere physics as particles of what matters de-coalesce. It’s a glorious madness, into which I now regress.
Remembering a slate-gray afternoon when snow trained into the one-on-one never done by Best and me. Blurring all edges of the dingy project’s angles except our need to win.
White tongues of frost on solstice-eve. “Keep playing!” “Beat the grave, Daddy-o!” And just to see if we could we would test our manhood under a curtain that’s never certain.
I backflip and stick the land. “Sockdollager!” “You are truly a one gone cat!” Best backflips, too. “Yo Harpo! Lay some Abe’s cave on the holiday tray. Some due backs! Let’s play!” “On!”
Inch-an-hour flakes like a thousand defenders’ hands stab the net, the backboard, the background, and that scuffed ball. “You’re too small, that’s all!” “Go ahead! Keep talking!”
Displaying layups, jump shots, juke dribble gone by on ice making each bounce coyer as precious air compresses until we’re bent like kindergartners coloring within the lines.
Each touch hardens. Each breath sharpens. Each laugh floating upon the spirit that speaks only to the young. God sent His number one sun and then hid it away on that 1950s day.
Goofing the play and just boiling about that holy, hallowed, screeded, rubbled, Coliseum where bigger kids looped kiddie swings so high that children can only look up and wonder.
That’s the world but not the way on this pause as shadows of future fans waver deftly beyond the curtains whitely sheathed forever and deaf to trash talk much announced.
“Fingerzinger!” “Supermurgitroid!” “Hitting on all the sixes, baby!” Harpo strings a drive bold. But, word from the bird, Best takes the house and credit — just that one time.
Joyful yelps strum the steps of showtime’s do-it-all. That night, ah, sure. But also during those day-to-days which tend to stray a time ago when you give a wink. Why be bored?
Me and Best at the foul line timeless. “What’s buzzin’, cuzzin?” Memory muscling in. Dropping it, dropping it, just dropping it. No pain, no strain, no need to involve the brain.
“How sweet it is!” Swish. Swish. Swish. “When God made her, He had all the lights on!” Swish. Swish. “Her daddy owns a television!” Swish. “Homework? What mush?” Clunk.
“Come to West Catholic High School for knuckleheaded boys, Best! You and me, we will hold court. Teach them how to play. Pro deo et Patria! We got this, man! Got it made!”
“Yo, Harpo! You trying to hypnotize this son of brimstone, brimming, God-glad grinning Southern Baptist minister with all that hocus pocus dominocus phonus balonus?”
What falls away stays away and what stays away dies. And ten years later (or was it 10,000?) Best rode a Freedom Bus down into the Southern crust as I looked the other way.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch. Burrs swing from Wilt’s magnificence like squirrels gripping a storm-bent branch. Called for holds once or twice (or thrice) but that’s just collateral.
Wilt hits free throws as first quarter fades to gray. But there’s more. For Harpo Lanigan nothing-but-nets it twice and now look up and over, read the lights—West leads, 10 to 9.
Greatness can’t be capped for long, and Wilt justifies his pride. Scores 11 in quarter two. Bends momentum to his whim, as ancillary egos bog along. Then time stops; we get a break.
Hilltoppers lead 24-20 at the half. I close my eyes my soul to rise above our huddled band. And as we pray Fred Astaire sings on the loudspeakers: “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck.”
Fate seals itself in confidence. “Just get the ball to me!” I do not say this but we all feel it, and know how this must end. March 6: the feast of Saint Fridolin, another wandering Mick
Beginning of the second half, I score six unanswerable points. Arcing geometrically through the net. I’m Greek to prove string theory, pulling salvation from this nexus mess.
Finally (finally!) Hilltoppers adjust as we Burrs right-widen the lead. They forgo the 2-3 defense, but that just statics their vibe. They’re done, except for one mano a mano for me.
Yep, Wilt’s not finished! Forget that! He never quits! A bounce to Harpo. I fake one way, charge another. But Chamberlain doesn’t bite. Exclamation points to his closing statement.
Teeth hidden in lip-gripped rage. He wants me to chew some leather. Wants to ram it to my toes! Wants to land one final show! Not to put too fine a pointer, he’s really out to get me!
I slip but do new math and lift the ball as the Big Kahuna strides twice, then leaps. That hand of creation worries every calculus of possibility. Rising, rising, rising to teach a lesson.
My shot highs higher but Wilt Chamberlain’s the highest still and his middle finger nips the trajectory, nick-spins a wayward load that wobbles to the rim like the dinosaurs’ meteor.
Clunks back-boardly, a fallen shot de-winged, de-fanged, deterred that dies too slow a death. Somehow finding its spiral while unicycling the rim until, until, until — IN!!!!
Or is it that he fists it high but not so far? A beach ball’s joyous dance above grains of fixed attention. It clowns around, mugs for film, floats down, and then it docks — IN!!!!
Or is revenge pressed to Wilt’s lips while he slams it off me noggin’? And from the floor I scour the court, forgetting where I am for just a moment until I hear Coach’s uproar — IN!!!!
“How the heck?” “What the heck?” “Tell me that did not just happen.” Wilt smiles at the ceiling and gives God a friendly wink. He doesn’t look my way again. I’m already in his head.
Hilltoppers flail and forage for any string-ling opening. But it’s like they all have cooties. “Later, gator.” As easy buckets follow for us, and Harpo scores 12 in the fourth quarter.
Burrs pick apart and pull away and Coach Usilton sends in the scrubs before the face runs down. Each West Catholic High School rostered boy becomes we lucky, lucky few with a view.
Breet! Breet! Breet! The game of our days shuts down in bedlam. I backflip, stick the landing. Then I cartwheel to my buddies’ bundled bodies. “Harpo! Harpo! Harpo! Harpo!”
Chuck Taylor, just move over! In the three years Wilt Chamberlain plays, Highlanders roll up 59 and 3. Two fluke losses against one miracle of a decisive defeat: Burrs, 54; Overbrook, 42.
Wilt scores 29 points against our eight-armed beast, slogging through the fire. Harpo scores 32 to make a record that Chamberlain ties in 1954’s championship game. (They win.)
Wilt scores 35 in ’55’s game to finally exorcise Harpo’s ghost (or do I sit forever at the right hand of Bill Russell?). That stands for some-teen years, his first challenge to the future.
After the commotion’s crest comes obligatory sportsmanship. Wilt and Harpo lean last in line. “Hand me some skin.” Slap! Then we shake like men. Holding, holding, holding back time.
“Good game, leprechaun,” he says. “You found your pot of gold.” “You’re pretty lucky there yourself, Chamberlain.” And at that he smiles, a talent that can be munificent in defeat.
“See ya’ll in the NBA. We’ll lift our team to heights.” And in this manner memory unmoors from idolatry and I will never worship March the sixth. I’ll hermit like Saint Balther.
For greatness, I guess, chooses to follow the select: The past can kiss me blooming Irish arse! For I do not believe in yesterday. I do not. Yes. I. Don’t. “What fools these mortals be!”
The ball. The net. The court. The lines. The sweat. The gear. The show, with nothing more to sow, reminiscing like the dead (like now, cat!) decades before my life runs through.
The moment, my moment, that eternal Harpo moment that springs to order and orders the things in Harpo’s life to turn the volume down. Vanity of vanities somehow I kept my sanity…
When in college two years later, my knee buckles and snaps. “I will show them! I will show them all! I am Harpo Lanigan! I will show them all! I WILL play again I swear! Amen!”
And I did play — in pickup games, in geezer leagues, just to clear me head. And for the love of teaching sons under a sun sizzling like conjurer’s magic just west of Evermount.
We meet in a history class called “The Ordeal of Total War.” And when that impish smile flashes me I rise. “A date with Kate is the best fate!” Her motto: BE HERE NOW.
The lilt, trill, thrill, excitals in her voice carries ever up and over those burnt, spent, dented shells of jockey despair. “Give thanks for every twilit shot, for every whispered swish.”
Wilt Chamberlain once brayed of having sex with 10,000 different women. Well, I work another game to steal the better part of fate, to ride a rapid wild and sweet to fill my days.
One love, one life, one extraordinary wife who allays the bitter part of me while we raise our — count ’em — seven children. Decorating rooms with laughter, love and glasses of wine.
She gentles me toward this void. She holds my hand at death. My eyes close to see how light shines differently in different parts of creation. (Jupiter’s sunset fast breaks across the gas!)
Kate: “Don’t leave me! Please, I beg, don’t leave! Please! Do! Not!” And then, “OK, my Sean, my handsome hero. You can go now, we’ll all be fine. We are all going to be just fine.”
There is no one else here, wherever “here” may be. If heaven doles pure happiness, then perhaps that exonerates my wait-for-Kate state. It may be I am meant to learn, to earn salvation.
Still trapped in time that doesn’t matter. Tick, stinking, tock, stinking, tick, stinking tock. Takes nothing off the clock and yet I welcome it. Listen now! For I neatly feel the rain.
My kids wheel Kate to the boards along the coast of Avalon. I am the breeze softening her face. I am the echoing of gulls. I am the rustling upon the dunes, the tide, the ebb, the flow.
She is nearly ninety now. “People are holy!” She says it still. Kate, my Kate, my angel, my state. Hear the waves and think of me. We danced in the kitchen, you on my feet. Recall?
A gull slides gently toward the light, as Kate hears a distant call that toasts the sunset being rung. Then someone raises a glass to her, and the angel of deliverance points to the sun.
Frank Diamond’s short stories have appeared in Innisfree, Kola: A Black Literary Magazine, Dialogual, the Madras Mag, Reverential Magazine, Empty Sink Publishing, and the Zodiac Review. He has had poetry published in Philadelphia Stories, Fox Chase Review, Deltona Howl, Artifact Nouveau, Black Bottom Review, and Feile-Festa. He lives in Langhorne, Pa.
Photo by: Gessy Alvarez