Basketball Culture 101: roles, identity, and Wilt Chamberlain

For a man who owns more individual records than any professional basketball player in history, Wilt Chamberlain’s autobiography, Wilt: Just like any other 7-foot black millionaire (1973), seems hell bent on setting the public record straight. The book, which he wrote with David Shaw, leads the reader chronologically through Wilt’s life—from a strong family in a lower middle class neighborhood in Philadelphia to life as a “swinging bachelor” and NBA Champion as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Chamberlain’s main goals appear to be exercising some control over the way he is remembered, and altering the labels that he picked up along the way.

The most dominant talent the game has ever seen, Wilt’s records would seem to speak for themselves. But somehow averaging fifty points and twenty rebounds for an entire season didn’t prevent the label of “loser” and “underachiever” from stubbornly adhering to Chamberlain throughout his life.Chamberlain with the Harlem Globetrotters

Wilt knew this. In his writing, his awareness of the way others perceived him protrudes from the page to petulantly jab the reader in the eye. “No one as sensitive as I am can become impervious to criticism,” he writes, “my reaction to unfair criticism has come more as a matter of principle—to set the record straight—rather than as an emotional counter-attack.”

As a part of this effort, Wilt regularly bemoans “the image of Wilt Chamberlain as Superman, a guy who should never lose.” In sports, we judge athletes not just by how well they perform, but how well they perform in relation to how we think they should perform. In reading Wilt’s book, I was reminded of something Steve Nash once said about Amar’e Stoudemire. When asked if Stoudemire would ever live up to his potential, Nash noted that Amar’e’s physical abilities push his potential to such heights, he could become the best player in the league and never reach them. Such was life for Wilt, on and off the court.

Know your role

I am no psychologist and do not presume to know the root motivations for Wilt’s life. However the style of the book, written conversationally in Wilt’s voice and given to an unstable rhythm of mostly factual narrative and personal introspection (as when he refers to his own “persecution complex”), invites such analysis of the decisions he made, and the roles he’d chosen to that point in his life.

As articulated by Émile Durkheim, the concept of “roles” in society seeks to explain how the combination of others’ expectations and each individual’s own relationship with those expectations governs our thoughts and behaviors.  This tension, sometimes manifested in “social facts” such as laws or religious tenets or social norms (like “don’t fart in an elevator”), creates social constraints that can have a coercive effect on the behavior of the individual. In Durkheim’s model, it doesn’t matter whether the individual actually assents to these facts. That is, inclusion (whether voluntary or otherwise) in a team, family, group, or as a member of society at large presupposes a constraint on individual will and freedom.

We can see a similar social phenomenon on the basketball court: big guys shouldn’t handle the ball, the best player should always take the final shot—informal laws govern hoops behavior.

The idea of roles on the basketball court, as in society, relies to no small degree on tradition. But when Wilt entered the still nascent NBA in 1959, he was a phenomenon unique to the basketball world. His combination of agility, skill, size and strength was unprecedented, and so his role would become something no one else could be expected to fulfill. Wilt’s role was that of the dominator, the decider of fates, the loaded dye.

Understandably, Wilt sometimes struggled to find happiness playing under these expectations. He felt that he was judged too harshly by coaches, teammates and especially “the press,” who he saw as disseminators of bogus storylines that portrayed Wilt as the evil Goliath figure. In the face of unfair perceptions that his physical gifts should allow him to singlehandedly control the outcomes of games, Wilt seems to have focused on what he knew he could control: individual achievements.

Chamberlain describes his career as a progression through three stages of roles: Scorer/Rebounder (1959-1966), Scorer/Passer (1967-68), Defender/Rebounder (1969-73) Determined to faithfully play his role within the team, Wilt appeared to seek out statistical accomplishments that would, in some way, help him fit in with the rest of his basketball society. Of course, Wilt wasn’t really just trying to fit in, he also desired to assert to be different, the best. So he set out to become the best rebounder ever, the best scorer ever, the best passing big man ever as the only center to ever lead the league in assists.

In this way, Chamberlain’s play and eye-popping records assert that he is uniquely great, while also allowing him to cram his superhuman talents into the framework of a game designed for mere mortals.

Wilt gets way, way up

Wilt’s awkward relationship with labels and roles is understandable. Yet it’s worth noting that the attributes he ascribes to himself on the cover of his very own book are of course the type of recursive, surface labels he rails against its pages.

In his basketball life, his teammates often bear these labels–distinct roles demarcate each player’s identity. When teammates failed to perform their jobs, Wilt portrays them as not holding up their end of the bargain. It’s a paradox of teamwork, and one that seems mostly lost on Wilt, that each player must play his role to facilitate team play but that sometimes strict adherence to a particular role can be an unwittingly selfish act of hoop. Maybe it wasn’t Wilt’s role to score big every night for the 1969 Lakers, a squad that also featured legends Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, but heck, would it have killed him to demand the ball down the stretch when they got to the playoffs? For Wilt, being the most productive player ever across multiple statistical categories (most impressively, he logged a ridiculous amount of minutes each year), somehow comes off as a limited achievement.

Human Giant

As the title to Wilt’s book suggests, there’s really no way for a 7-foot, internationally famous, millionaire, outspoken, black man to blend in to the rest of society—even if he wants to be treated “just like any” regular guy. Chamberlain understood this well, yet his stories about his life off the court share the same schizophrenic quality as descriptions of his basketball dominance.

Many of Wilt’s life stories, by design or not, center around how incredibly exceptional he was. The fastest runner, the highest jumper, the best driver, the best lover, the best card player, the most cultured (Wilt loved Europe and spent most summers there), best junk salesman, the best foreign language skills (he claims to speak parts of four languages). Throughout the book, Wilt oscillates between tales like when, after the Watts Riots in 1968, he challenged a racist police officer who pointed a gun at his head by saying “OK, (censored), you cocked that thing, you might as well pull the trigger” and stories about just wanting to play beach volleyball for the rest of his days. He often expresses a nuanced consciousness of the effects of race on his life, but also a desire to ignore or deny the typical trappings of racial identity.

Strangely, this narrative structure begins to assume the contours of the Superman comic, with Wilt carrying emotional sensitivities and human frailties in a body built to save the day.

It’s not difficult to pick apart the Dipper’s personal ramblings (somehow the book is 310 pages) for inconsistencies. But it’d be disingenuous to claim that either side of Wilt, the dominator or the regular Joe, is insincere. It’s not that he wanted to have it both ways, it’s that it simply was both ways.

At least, that’s my best guess from Chamberlain’s telling of his own life and career. However, one curious moment, three pages before the close of the book, hints that Wilt falls short of being a complete account. When speculating on his life after basketball, Wilt rules out public speaking, despite the fact “[he’d] overcome a stuttering problem that several members of my family had.”

Wait. What? When? And how? Why was this absent from all the descriptions of his loquaciousness, his penchant to argue, the booming, deep voice, and the chapter on his childhood? How did he miss out on such a great opportunity to humanize himself?

The questions elude a reductive conclusion, but the omission fittingly captures Wilt’s struggles, on and off the court, to find a role that, for a 7-foot black millionaire super-athlete living right next door, would be acceptable to the rest of us.

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Check out more of HoopSpeak’s Basketball Culture 101

This HoopSpeak project is based on the University of Michigan course Basketball Cultures. Click to read the enlightening thoughts of course’s professor, Dr. Yago Colás

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