A Friendship That Never Wilted
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scouted for the 76ers and later coached basketball for 27 seasons at Frankford High,
ending in 1998. His teams won Public League championships in '88 and '89 and advanced to
the final in '81. His overall record was 351-171.
Following is a first-person account of Vince's relationship with the late Wilt Chamberlain.
I met Wilt in 1945 when my family moved from North Philadelphia to West Philadelphia. I lived at 54th and Girard and he lived at 401 N. Salford.
Having transferred, I was put in his third grade class at George Brooks Elementary and, being the two tallest, we always wound up together at the back of the line. We were probably best friends from the first day we met.
Track and field was our main interest at first; Wilt even ran in the prestigious Penn Relays. But around the sixth grade, when we were ready to graduate from Brooks, basketball started to become a big part of our lives.
In 1949, we started at Shoemaker Junior High and basketball was now very big. Track and field was starting to fade out some. We played for our class team in games after school and our love for the game started to take over and we found ourselves trying to play basketball every moment we could.
It was then that I found out what recruiting was all about. You might say, Recruiting on a high school level? Yeah, it did take place. Wilt was becoming so good, high schools were starting to recruit him.
One in particular was St. Thomas More (which closed in June 1975). They sent word they were willing to give Wilt free lunches and tokens if Wilt would attend that school. But I think it was already written in stone that we'd attend Overbrook High because our families had all gone there. His brothers and sisters and my brothers and sisters all went to 'Brook.
In the ninth grade, Wilt started going over to Overbrook to practice with the team. The coach at that time was Sam Cozen, and he got the word that a great, 6-foot-10 player was at Shoemaker. So, even as a ninth grader, Wilt would go to Overbrook and practice with the varsity. Sam WANTED him.
In 10th grade, Wilt immediately made the varsity. I did not. I was on the JV. Even in his first game, Wilt was a big success, scoring and rebounding and blocking shots. The word about what a great player he was quickly got around the city. In that year, Overbrook lost just two games, to Ben Franklin in the Public League and to West Catholic in the City Title game.
West came up with a plan of putting four men around Wilt with one guy (Bill Lindsay) playing the other four guys. Wilt still scored 29 points, but the other guys didn't do too much. I remember being in the stands that night and thinking, "If I was out there, I'd be able to score."
In high school, Wilt resumed his interest in track and field. He also ran cross country. I believe he wanted to show he was more than a one-sport man. I think he would have been a great athlete in any sport he chose.
In 11th grade, I made the basketball varsity and we had a tremendous season, winning the City Title over South Catholic (now St. John Neumann). Wilt had a great game with 32 points and Jimmy Sadler also played very well, scoring 17 points.
By this time, Wilt was being recruited by many, many colleges and in the summer after his junior, Wilt went up to a place called Kutsher's in the Catskill Mountains to work and play for a team that mostly had college guys. The legendary Red Auerbach was the coach and the team would play against teams representing other resorts.
Wilt told a story about how Red had this great player who was going to be drafted by Boston, and was going to teach Wilt a lesson. The first game, Wilt scored 52 points and blocked 13 shots against the guy. Mind you, this was somebody who was getting ready to go to the NBA.
Wilt worked at the hotel as a bellhop. I'll never forget how he came home with this big wad of money. He said, "You won't believe this, but the people would call me to their room just to bring them some hangers and see me, and they'd give me $3 or $5." In 1954, that was good money.
The first thing Wilt wanted to do was buy a car. He bought a second-hand, slant-backed Oldsmobile, and we were proud as could be riding around in that car, just like we were in a brand new Cadillac.
As we started our final year at Overbrook, Wilt, along with his
sister, Barbara, would come pick me up every morning. Now that
was a friend. He'd come from Callowhill and Salford to 54th and Girard just to pick me up. Every day.
As basketball season started, we were getting ready to go to Christmas tournaments in Farrell and Johnstown, in Western Pennsylvania, and Villanova was ready to go to the Holiday Festival, in New York City. We both needed tough scrimmages, so there we were, meeting at their field house on the Main Line.
I know the Villanova guys don't like to admit it, but we did beat them. We also scrimmaged Temple and gave them all they wanted.
When we went to Farrell, we lost to them, 59-58. This was the next-day headline in the paper out there: Farrell Stops Wilt Chamberlain in a Hometown Decision. It was some of the worst officiating we'd ever seen. One of the tournament organizers even apologized to us. Came right in our locker room. Then we moved on to Johnstown, where we won that tournament.
The trip to Western Pennsylvania gave us our first plane ride. It was quite exciting. We didn't go first class. We were in coach. Can you imagine Wilt stuffing his 6-11 frame into those little seats?
Later that season, we again participated in the City Title game and the opponent was again West Catholic. Memories of that 10th grade game came back to me, when they put four men on Wilt and the other guys didn't do too much.
I was awfully quiet in the locker room, not saying much, thinking about the game. Some of my teammates, Wilt among them, started teasing me. "Hey, Vince, what's the matter? You scared?" It wasn't that I was scared. I was just thinking back to that 1953 game, when I told the guys that if I'd been out there, we would have won.
Anyway, we did win. By 41 points. Wilt had 35 points and I had 31. Probably the best game of my career. The next morning, Wilt called me and said, real excited, "Vince! Vince! Did you see the Daily News today?" This shows you how proud he was of what I accomplished. He said I had to see the headline -- Miller, Chamberlain Help Overbrook Romp to City Title.
After the season, the recruiting picked up even more and it was time to make some visits. One of the first visits was to the University of Michigan. He asked the head coach if he could bring along a friend, a teammate he also might be interested in. This was the second plane ride in our lives. And this time, we did go first class. Wilt could stretch out a little more. It was a great time. They wined and dined us to death.
Soon, it was almost time to graduate from the great Overbrook High School, but there was one more big event -- the prom. Wilt asked me if I was going to the prom. I said, "I think so." He said he wasn't going.
"Why aren't you going, Wilt?"
"There are too many girls in this place. If we take one, the others are going to be mad at us."
"I think you're right, Wilt. I'm not going, either. I'm not going to single out one and forget the others."
I sadly say to this day, I should have gone to that prom. I always sensed that Wilt felt the same way, too.
Graduation day was really tough. We both loved Overbrook, but it was time to leave. I vividly remember that night, how emotional everybody was. Several of our classmates were boo-hooing.
For college, Wilt decided on Kansas. They'd been out to see Wilt play and the coach, Phog Allen, was a famous man in basketball. Really, one of the inventors of basketball. He used a very shrewd recruiting tactic, bringing three men with him. One of them was a black doctor. Wilt had maybe 20 to 26 points, one of his lowest totals of the year, but Phog Allen knew what Wilt had.
When Wilt visited Kansas, he liked it. So he went there. I went to North Carolina A&T, but Wilt and I were still communicating often. And sending clippings to each other. Freshmen were not allowed to play varsity at that time, but Wilt was getting a lot of attention.
At the end of freshman year, Wilt said he was getting ready to drive home and was coming to pick me up. I couldn't believe it. There he was, in Lawrence, Kansas, and he was coming to North Carolina A&T, in Greensboro, a distance of maybe 1,800 miles, to give ME a ride back to Philly. He did it, though. He even hung around for three or four days while I finished taking my finals.
When we started our trip home, it was Wilt, me and my A&T teammate, Joe Howell, who'd been a star at West Philly High. I started off doing the driving and went for maybe the first 100 miles and then Wilt said, "Let me take over." Wilt liked speed. I guess I wasn't driving fast enough for him.
We were going through Bowling Green, Va., when I heard the siren go off. I said, "Wilt, I think the cops are after us." They were. They pulled us over and the cop came up to the window. "Do you know you were speeding? Doing 55 in a 45 MPH zone? I might have to take you in."
In those days, you had to pay the fine on the spot. When we got to the court, the fine was maybe $42. We started looking in our pockets to see who had some money. Joe Howell came up with about $10. Wilt had about $20. I had maybe $5. Whatever our total was, we were short. We were going to call Western Union, so our parents could wire some money to us. Of all times, Western Union was on strike.
The judge said, "Well, I guess we'll have to put him in jail."
I couldn't believe it. But there went Wilt, to jail. Joe and I just sat in the car. The money, coming by special delivery, wasn't going to come until the next day.
Joe and I decided to get something to eat. A couple of hot dogs. We went back to the parking lot outside where the jail was; it was on the second floor. I hollered up to Wilt, "Did you get anything to eat?" He yelled down, "I'm not worried about eating! I'm up here playing cards, trying to win some money so we can get out of here!"
The next morning, the money came and we were on our way back to Philly.
After three or four days in Philly, we jumped back in the car and headed to Kansas. Wilt had a summer job at General Tire. He said he could get me one, too. Plus, it would be a chance for the coach to see me and for me to play against the Kansas players. On the way out, we stopped in St. Louis.
Once we got there, money was really, really tight. Wilt had a few dollars. I didn't have anything. We stayed in a house with a little, old lady. Until we got our first check, we lived on baloney sandwiches. Wilt would always tell the store clerk, "I want a pound of baloney, but please cut it extra thin." A pound is a pound, right? Wilt always told them to cut it extra thin, so it seemed like we were getting more.
Sometimes, we were so hungry and thirsty. We'd raid the lady's refrigerator and drink her orange juice, and hope she wouldn't notice it was missing.
It was a great summer. I got to work and play ball and the Kansas coaches liked me. They wanted me to go there, but I would have had to sit out one year, so I stayed with A&T.
In his letters, Wilt used to say he didn't like the college game that much. He said he was tired of getting double- and triple-teamed. After his junior year, when Kansas lost in the NCAA final to North Carolina and coach Frank McGuire, Wilt said he was thinking of leaving college, that he wanted to join the Harlem Globetrotters. I told him I'd support him. It wasn't that Wilt was having academic problems. He was a great student. He was just fed up with being guarded by two and three men, and disappointed that they hadn't won the national title.
Wilt met with Abe Saperstein, the owner of the Globetrotters, and decided to sign a contract. Remember, this was 1958. Top NBA players were making $15,000 to $18,000, tops. But Wilt negotiated a contract with the Globies for $65,000! An unheard of total in those days.
Wilt had to go to a press conference at a famous New York restaurant to sign the contract. He asked me to come along. I wound up being the witness to the contract. Wound up signing it.
The place was packed. They asked Wilt to change and put on the Globetrotters' uniform. He came to me and said, "Not only did they sign me for $65,000." He had a BIG wad of money. "They also gave me a $10,000 bonus." He said he didn't want to leave it in the dressing room, so he gave it to me to hold.
Can you imagine that? Two kids from West Philly, carrying around a wad of $10,000? Every once in a while on the drive back home, we'd pull it out and look at it, just to make sure it was real.
Wilt loved the Globetrotters. It was all he talked about. But after that year, Wilt was ready for the NBA. Eddie Gottlieb, the owner of the Warriors, had put in a territorial rule for the draft, so you could get the guys from your area. Eddie did that strictly because he knew that would get him Wilt. To get Wilt, Eddie had to pay him around $80,000. Anything less and it would have been fine with Wilt to just stay with the Globetrotters.
Through his career, Wilt was probably one of the most recognized athletes around. He had worldwide fame, even from his high school days. Unlike so many of today's athletes, who do not give back, Wilt gave to everybody. To his community. To his family. He sponsored teams, trips, camps, activities. So many times people would ask him to do something. He'd say, "I'll do it, but no one's to know." He didn't want the credit.
As a businessman, Wilt was very shrewd. From his nightclub in Harlem, Big Wilt's Small Paradise, to his investments in stocks and bonds. He was not going to be one of those athletes who's broke after his playing days. A lot of that savvy came from his first lawyer, Ike Richman, and the great Eddie Gottlieb, the mogul. They guided Wilt on his way. They put Wilt on the right path.
To show you how shrewd Wilt was, when he bought his first car, it was a Bentley convertible. Cost him $22,000. The other guys were driving Cadillac El Dorados. They were saying, "You could get three El Dorados for that."
Know what? Those El Dorados were in the auto graveyard long ago. Wilt's Bentley is still rolling along. It's worth about $500,000.
The Chamberlain household was always a fun place to be. It was a central meeting place for the Overbrook players and neighborhood guys. One of the reasons, I'm sure, was that Wilt had six sisters. All the guys wanted to hang out there. That was where most of us learned to dance.
Wilt's mother and father were very open and friendly to us. They'd let us come over on Saturday mornings and feed us big breakfasts. Six pancakes. Mounds of fried potatoes. Great food from great people.
During the summers, we would work out at Haddington Recreation Center. The rec department would close up the centers. They wanted all the activity to take place outdoors. We would beg Blinky Brown, who worked for recreation and later became a vice principal at Overbrook, to let us in. It would be 100 degrees in that place. We'd tell Blinky, "Let us go in, lock it up and come back in two or three hours." We worked on basketball endlessly, trying to improve our skills.
What really told me that Wilt considered me to be his best friend was when, while he was playing for the 76ers, he asked me to share an apartment with him.
First we had a penthouse apartment at the Plaza, downtown, then we got a three-bedroom place on the 25th floor at the Hopkinson House. It was there that I met my wife, Gloria.
When I decided to get married, I asked Wilt to be my best man. He came in from California. In those days most people were renting tuxes. I had one made for Wilt and I gave the guy his size. Lo and behold, it fit him to a T, but my wife-to-be had to run around to find him size 15 shoes. (Actually, for such a large man, Wilt's shoes weren't THAT big. My grandson takes a size 13, and he's only 13 years old.)
My reception was at the Marriott. John Chaney likes to tell a story of how he and Wilt caught a cab to the reception and the bill came to $21 or $22. John said, "C'mon, Wilt, pay the tab." Wilt said his pants didn't have any pockets, so he didn't have any money. John still swears Wilt owes him that money.
I will never forget Wilt Chamberlain. He was like a brother to me. I was his confidant.
The greatest thing of all was, He was my very best friend for over 50 years.