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Tough-nosed Teammate Remembers Wilt Chamberlain

Every day there are fewer people who can actually remember seeing the Hall of Fame center Wilt Chamberlain who dominated the paint in the NBA to such an extent the league had to widen the lane by four feet to give his opponents a chance. Tough-nosed teammate and NBA All-Star Tom Meschery talks about his friend in this fascinating interview by Ed Odeven in The Japan Times.

In the years after the larger-than-life Chamberlain passed away on Oct. 12, 1999, Meschery remembers his teammate as “the biggest man I’ve ever seen” and “the strongest man in the world. He was amazing.”

“Wilt and I were close. We were friends,” Meschery said. “We played with each other. We were teammates. . . . I don’t allow people to call me Tommy, but he did. (In that game), that’s what he was saying, ‘Say hello, Tommy. Come on, Tommy,’ like I was some kind of little boy, and I was. Compared to him I was a little boy.”

Meschery was there when Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game he admitted  “the Knicks were not a very good team.” However, he remembers the Knicks were doing everything they could to not have played a part on the wrong side in NBA lore.

“Wilt was going to score 100 points, and they beat on him. Wilt was the most beat-on player ever and he never lost his temper except once in his career.”

The old NBA wasn’t like the current rather soft version. In many ways it was more like hockey where truly dirty play and fighting wasn’t just tolerated, it was part of the game. However,  Meschery can only remember one player actually getting Chamberlain to lose control – Clyde Lovellette.

“He was a mean son of a bitch,” he said of Lovellette, “and always was, and dirty. I mean a truly dirty (expletive) player. I really disliked him . . .

“Anyway, Clyde threw one too many elbows at Wilt, and Wilt knocked him out with one punch. And the punch traveled no more than one foot maybe at most. It was just a jab, but the fiercest jab I ever saw.”

The 6’6 Meschery wasn’t a teammate of Chamberlain for his entire career. The forward played four seasons with Seattle and had his own rather embarrassing physical altercation with his friend.

Once while suiting up for the Sonics, Meschery got ticked off at ex-teammate Chamberlain, who was then with the Lakers.

“It was,” he says now. “Looking back at it, I don’t think I was thinking that at the time, but as I was being interviewed and as I’ve kind of come to think of it all my life as . . . it was like a comic book.

“Wilt was literally holding my head. I was trying to hit him and I was of course moving towards him, and so my forward motion was impeded by his hand. So he had his hand on my forehead, so imagine the pictures.

“His hand on my forehead and me wildly swinging and because of course his arm was so long I couldn’t hit him,” Meschery added with a chuckle.

Chamberlain led the NBA in minutes played, points and rebounds as a rookie in 1959-60, winning both Rookie-of-the-Year and Most-Valuable-Player and he continued that unbelievable triple-threat level of dominance for three more years in a row after that. Reaching a pinnacle in 1961-62 when he set the current unassailable NBA record for minutes played (3,882) and points scored (4,029) in a season to average 48.5 minutes, 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds in 80 games. (Just in case you might be wondering why the NBA had to widen the paint – it was getting embarrassing.)

Chamberlain will always be remembered for his scoring as he averaged over 30 points per game for his first nine seasons, but in an era where his main adversary was Bill Russell, perhaps he should be remembered for being the current NBA record holder for rebounds with 23,924 and rebounds per game of 22.9. In his final season at 36-years-old Chamberlain averaged 18.6 boards.

Yes, the all-time great Hall-of-Famer started filling the NBA record books in his rookie season to an extent never seen before and never approached after, but as Meschery remembers, perhaps the most fascinating side of this larger-than-life figure isn’t found in his stats.

Chamberlain should also be remembered for his physical dominance in an era where throwing elbows and punches were part of the game. Where being tough meant more than playing thru a sore ankle.

If more recent generations had the same level of self control as Chamberlain, maybe today’s game wouldn’t have gotten to the point where it seems like every hard foul is being called flagrant.

Ed Odeven’s article in The Japan Times is just the first of a three-part series about the very interesting life of Tom Meschery. Be sure to check out the entire feature.



Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.