THE KNICKS came slithering out to play the Warriors back in the day, mischief in their eyes, malice in their hearts. They were all, every bleeping one of them, wearing rubber bands on their wrists, taunting Wilt Chamberlain, trying to embarrass him.
Wilt got mad. And then he got even. Slapped 100 on them later on in that '62 season. One hundred points, including an amazing Halley's Comet, solar eclipse, Red Sea-parting 28 of 32 free throws. Posed with a white sheet of paper in the Hershey Arena locker room afterward, after statman Harvey Pollack scrawled "100" on it.
Check out Wilt's right wrist in that photo. Uh-huh, there's a rubber band on his right wrist. Never played without 'em.
And now, 41 years after he retired, 15 years after his death, the U.S. Postal Service has issued not one, but two stamps honoring Philadelphia's Wilton Norman Chamberlain. Printed 50 million of 'em. Hallelujah!
First NBA player so honored. Terrific! Made the stamps bigger than normal, a smidge over 2 inches high. Beautiful! Fulfills a dream for Tribune sports writer Donald Hunt, catalyst in the campaign to make it happen. Lovely!
The stamps will debut at halftime of a loss to Oklahoma City tonight at Wells Fargo Center. They honor Wilt for the 100-point game, honor him for averaging 50 points a game one season, 50, count 'em, 50! Honor him for scoring 4,029 points that season. Honor him for leading the league in assists after cynics griped about him scoring so many points. Honor him for never, ever fouling out of a game.
USPS hired an experienced, gifted artist named Kadir Nelson to paint the images, one of Wilt in a Warriors uniform, one in the purple-and-gold of the Lakers. Oops!!!
Wilt retired in '73. Nelson was born in '74.
"It's an honor to do a stamp," Nelson said recently. (His dazzling work included stamps honoring tennis pioneer Althea Gibson and Negro League stalwart Rube Foster.)
"I didn't know that much about Wilt. I was more familiar with the next generation of NBA players. I looked at lots of photos. I looked at Sports Illustrated covers. I watched a documentary about him.
"He was gigantic. I talked to the designer, Antonio Alcala. We wondered, how were we going to cram this giant into a postage stamp? As a young player, he was known for his offense. As an older player, more muscular, he was known for his defense. And those are the aspects we tried to show."
The Philadelphia image is a lean Chamberlain, the basketball on his fingertips, maybe getting ready to fire that fallaway shot. Or maybe preparing to pronate the wrist and let the ball slide off those loooong fingers and into the hoop, bringing a roar from the crowd and a "Dipper Dunk" screech from public address announcer Dave Zinkoff.
The Lakers image is full frontal, bearded, huskier, holding the ball aloft, a rebound, looking to trigger a fastbreak with a crisp outlet pass to Jerry West or Elgin Baylor.
The paintings are based on photos unburdened by copyright issues. Had Nelson noticed a rubber band in that Philadelphia photo? "Well, yes," he said after a pause. "It was down, though, on his forearm.
"We didn't depict it because details get lost or appear fuzzy when the image is reduced to postage stamp size."
(The stamps go on sale today. Maybe the missing rubber band makes them more valuable, like the upside down airplane in that infamous Inverted Jenny airmail stamp, printed in May 1918. One of the "mistakes" sold for $977,500 in 2007.)
And then, I told him what I knew about the rubber bands and why Wilt wore them and how they helped explain this complex, misunderstood, 7-1 Goliath.
Wilt grew in spurts. He was 6-11 at Overbrook High with a chiseled torso atop flamingo legs. Wore high, thick socks to disguise those thin legs. Worried about a rubber band snapping, those socks drooping during a game, the jeers that might follow, so he always wore a spare set of rubber bands on his wrists.
"Lumberjack socks," Sonny Hill recalled. "We'd buy them at the Army-Navy store. Thick, with a rim, yellow or green. They'd fall down if the rubber band broke, which is why we carried spares."
Wilt spent parts of summers on his uncle's farm in Virginia, vulnerable to insect bites that sometimes left scars on those lean legs. He stuttered as a youth and other kids m-m-m-mocked him. Let the record show that he conquered the stuttering by hard work, that he eventually sang "By the River" on a record, that he had a feature role in the "Conan" movie, that he loved to debate issues in a loud, clear voice.
More kids are cruel than kind. Bullying victims are not limited to scrawny, timid kids. They bullied Wilt verbally and he used that sculpted body, his quick mind, his will, his skill, to become the greatest basketball player on the planet.
And if that wasn't enough, he was a recordsetting high jumper, a fiercely competitive shot putter. He talked about concentrating on the decathlon and that was before they built vaulting poles strong enough to hold him. He designed and built an automobile, a very expensive whim. He wrote two books, he thought for maybe 90 seconds about fighting Muhammad Ali. He frolicked with 20,000 women. (Friends told him a million times not to exaggerate.)
He could create and debunk myths on successive days. He gave legs, you should excuse the expression, to the rubber-band legend. Once team trainers started using adhesive tape to safely secure his socks, the original reason for the spare rubber bands was obsolete, but he was reluctant to discard them.
He said he wore them to remind him of old friends. He told teammate Joe Ruklick, "When I feel like I'm doggin' it, I snap them to remind me of when my people were under the lash."
When the same people who asked how the weather was up there asked him about the rubber band he continued to wear, he'd sneer and say: "We have some pretty complicated plays in basketball. I wear it so I'll know which hand is my right hand when I start to move on the court."
He wore one on his right wrist until he was about 45, out of habit, out of fear, out of nostalgia, whatever. He liked to keep people guessing. He said he wasn't superstitious, claiming he wore 13 on his jersey because other people were superstitious and feared that number.
And then, in a 1986 interview with his good friend, Frank Deford, he was asked about the rubber bands.
"I kept wearing them," Wilt said, "because it reminded me of who I was, where I came from. Then suddenly, I felt that I just didn't need that reminder anymore. So I took off the rubber bands."
Wilt Chamberlain never forgot where he came from, one of the most endearing qualities of the Big Fella. When Sonny Hill asked Wilt to be part of his "Reach Back" program, Chamberlain showed up at Overbrook High School, sang the school anthem on the front steps, talked seriously to the kids gathered in the schoolyard.
He could have told them to honor their parents, to listen to their teachers, to study hard, to shun drugs and booze because they frazzle your brain. He could have told them a dozen different things that might have slid in one ear and out the other.
What he told them was: "Choose your friends wisely. It's the most important thing you can do."