As the Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers vie for the NBA title, it is hard not to remember a certain giant whose legend looms over both cities in this championship series. His talent was so immense that the game's rules were changed. His fame was too great for one city, stretching from one coast to another and beyond.
While this series plays out between his hometown and his adopted home, Wilt Chamberlain must be decked out in shades and a headband, looking down on it all and smiling.
"I'm sure he is," said Selina Gross, Chamberlain's sister. "And he's hoping that Philadelphia will win."
Chamberlain, whose singular dominance and flamboyant lifestyle might never be duplicated on or off a basketball court, split his NBA career and remarkable life between Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Twenty months after his death, his legacy lives on and hovers over the NBA Finals, a shadow that seems to grow only more imposing with time.
Nothing about Chamberlain, one of the most complex personalities ever to ascend to sports stardom, was easy to define. But the question of which city can claim his legacy, friends and family members say, is not up for serious debate. Los Angeles may have borrowed him for a while, they say, but the man known simply as Wilt remains synonymous with Philadelphia basketball.
"Anybody that knows Wilt Chamberlain associates him with Philadelphia," childhood friend Vince Miller said. "That was his home. Even though he stayed away a lot and didn't come back as much as he could have, when you say Wilt Chamberlain, the first thing you think of is Philadelphia."
Chamberlain still owns page after page of the NBA record books, and the burden of his greatness has been felt by the stars who followed him in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Chamberlain embraced 76er star Allen Iverson for his talent and uniqueness long before the rest of the sports world climbed onto the bandwagon. He once criticized Laker center Shaquille O'Neal for not living up to his billing as the NBA's next great center, although he surely would have changed his mind by now.
"He'd say, 'Look at you now, my man. Look at you now,' " said Barbara Lewis, another of Chamberlain's four surviving sisters. "I can hear him saying that."
Chamberlain was born in West Philadelphia, where he learned the game in the city's golden era of basketball. He first picked up a ball at Shoemaker Junior High--"made his first dunk there," Lewis said--then blossomed at Overbrook High and, after three years at the University of Kansas and one with the Harlem Globetrotters, began his NBA career with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959.
He moved to San Francisco with the Warriors in 1962, was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1965 and finished his career with the Lakers from 1968-73. He won a championship in each city--with the 76ers in 1967 and with the Lakers in 1972. Most of his famous playoff battles with Bill Russell's Celtics occurred when Chamberlain played in Philadelphia.
But while his heart was always in Philly--he wore his Overbrook jacket almost every time he returned home to visit--his thirst for the bright lights led him to embrace Los Angeles, where he lived until his death from heart failure on Oct. 12, 1999, at age 63.
"He needed the lifestyle of L.A. . . . playing volleyball on the beaches and meeting all the celebrities and Hollywood stars," said Cecil Mosenson, Chamberlain's high school coach at Overbrook. "But his home was Philadelphia."
Even those who watched Chamberlain thrive in Los Angeles agree.
"I know he loved L.A.," said Lewis, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1963. "He loved living here. But he considered himself a Philadelphia basketball player, because that's where it all started for him."
One of Chamberlain's oddities was that he often expressed his love for Philadelphia from a distance. Even while he played for the Philadelphia Warriors in the early '60s, he commuted from an apartment in New York--partly because of his fascination with the big city to the north and partly to escape the stifling demands of fame in his hometown.
"Wilt couldn't hide," longtime friend Sonny Hill said. "Any 7-foot black man in Wilt's time couldn't hide."
Chamberlain forced his trade to the Lakers in 1968 in a dispute with 76er ownership. He eventually put the hard feelings aside and returned to Philadelphia to have his No. 13 retired and raised to the rafters, where it hangs over the Finals this week. On April 19, a mural depicting Chamberlain in the uniforms of the Lakers and 76ers was dedicated at 13th and Vine Streets in downtown Philly.
His legacy is evident as you watch O'Neal blossom into the dominant center that Chamberlain always thought he should be. As for Iverson, Chamberlain always saw greatness there--even while critics pointed to all the mistakes.
"Iverson has become symbolic of all the great basketball players who played for the Warriors and the 76ers," Mosenson said. "I think he feels that image of Dr. J and Wilt and Barkley hovering over him and he has performed in a wonderful manner."
Fittingly, Chamberlain's family remains split between these two cities, just as his life was. Two sisters still live in Philadelphia; two sisters and two brothers live in Los Angeles. Two other siblings have died.
Each surviving sibling kept some of Chamberlain's ashes until recently, when they were scattered in the Pacific Ocean from a boat off the coast of Santa Monica, in the waters he loved. But there's no question where his heart remains.
"That's Philadelphia," Gross said, "and that will never change."