After an interview on the day before the 76ers belatedly retired his number in 1991, Wilt Chamberlain handed me a copy of his new book, A View From Above.

Then, in tiny letters at the bottom of the page, he added his nickname, the one he liked best, the one that probably explained him better than any book, the one that revealed how much this super-sized basketball superstar wished he could be like everyone else.


That odd addition, I've come to believe, was a clue kindly offered to help me with the story. Chamberlain, who died at 63 in 1999, was reminding me to search for the man inside the giant.

Fifty years ago, in his happiest season, Chamberlain led the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers to a then-all-time best 68-13 record and the NBA championship. A half-century later, that team's reputation has faded, but he remains the greatest athlete this city has ever produced.

And also the most puzzling.

In one telling paragraph from his 2004 biography, Wilt: Larger Than Life, Robert Cherry attempted a litany of his subject's complexities. Among the long list that included "one of the greatest athletes of the 20th Century," "excellent cook" and "smart businessman" were "contrarian and complainer," "teller of tales" and "loner."

Full of contradictions, Chamberlain was no easy subject for a biographer. He was a public figure who preferred to be alone, a prodigious lover who never married, an unmatched basketball superstar who constantly daydreamed of other sports, a player who held out regularly but almost never missed a game.

It was as if he were beset by an internal tug-of-war pitting the boastful "Wilt the Stilt" against the loner "Dippy."

Those who tended to see only the former called him a selfish loser who lacked the heart of his great rival, Bill Russell, and was obsessed with personal accomplishments.

"Chamberlain was in love with Chamberlain, with his stats," Red Auerbach, Russell's coach, once said.

Yet friends and teammates who knew "Dippy" best saw an intelligent, engaging, strangely introverted Chamberlain, a 7-foot-2 West Philadelphian who longed for the normalcy his height and fame wouldn't permit.

"What Wilt was on the outside identified him as a person," Tom Meschery, his Warriors teammate, once said. "It's that way with many athletes, but it's all the more so with Wilt because there was more on the outside of him than anybody else."

The psychic respite he found in besting Russell and winning the title in 1966-67, when for once he was widely praised for focusing on teamwork, didn't last long.

By the summer of 1968, he would be roiled again by internal conflict. After Boston overcame an Eastern Division Finals lead of three games to one and dethroned the Sixers, a disappointed and heavily criticized Chamberlain demanded a trade. On July 9, he was dealt to Los Angeles.

That was a pattern repeated often in his epic but enigmatic 15-year reign as one of basketball's revolutionary figures.

Chamberlain either couldn't find or couldn't endure contentment. Reaching for some unreachable goal, he'd switch his focus to a new challenge, as when, to prove that points weren't the point, he led the league in assists. And every few years, it seemed, he'd ask to be traded or threaten to walk away or seek to renegotiate his contract.

"That was Wilt," said David Richman, the son of Chamberlain's lawyer who became a close friend. "Throughout his life he was forced to play a role that he didn't like. You didn't get to see all the stuff that he went through every time he walked outside.

"Even though he was a very deep and intelligent person, people didn't really talk to him about anything important. He'd enter a room, and they'd say things, like, 'Hey, how's the weather up there?' It was a strange life."

When he was growing up and up and up on Salford Street in West Philly, friends and family called him "Dippy" or "Dipper." The nickname didn't refer to his ability to dunk. It was because he so often had to diminish himself, ducking beneath rowhouse doorways, slumping in the company of friends to appear more normal.

"He was always slouching over because he was not very proud," longtime friend John Chaney once recalled. "It was a terrible, terrible thing to be tall because people would pick at you."

For Chamberlain, who was 6-foot-3 in eighth grade, exceptional height was both blessing and curse. It helped him earn millions, become world famous and set records that might never be broken. But it also made him a freakish outsider.

"I would never have wanted to be Wilt Chamberlain," said Billy Cunningham, a teammate who admired him as much as anyone. "There was no place to hide."

Asked during a 1987 interview what it felt like to be extraordinary in an ordinary world, Chamberlain blanched.

"I like to think it's the world that's extraordinary," he said, "and that I'm just an ordinary part of it."

To the world, there could never be anything ordinary about Chamberlain. Not his athletic ability and accomplishments. Not his penchant for grandiosity. And certainly not his stature.

The grandiosity and size were related. If people demanded outsized gestures from a giant, he would provide them - 100 points, 20,000 women, a lifetime of boasts (many validated) - about other pastimes and professions he could master.

Satisfying both aspects of his personality was hard work, and it exacted a toll.

As a boy, Chamberlain stuttered. He sucked his thumb until high school. As an adult superstar, he increasingly withdrew or sought a change of scenery whenever his efforts to live up to the public's enormous expectations grew too oppressive.

At the same time he was dominating the 1960s' basketball spotlight, he was withdrawing. While hogging the headlines in Philadelphia papers, he was dining alone or with the same one or two friends in his Ben Franklin Parkway penthouse. Chamberlain came to enjoy solitude to such a degree that, for fun, he drove back and forth across America by himself at least 20 times. If friends came to stay at his California mansion, he'd make sure they were comfortable - then depart.

Arguably the greatest player in NBA history, he won four MVP awards and two championships. He led the league 11 times in rebounds, nine times in shooting percentage, eight times in minutes, seven times in scoring, once even in assists.

And yet, because of his size, that basketball greatness was often degraded. If he won or set records, it was only because he was bigger than everyone else. If he failed, it was all on his shoulders. Perhaps he didn't win because, no matter what he did, he couldn't win.

"The thing about Wilt was that whatever great thing he accomplished, people never thought it was enough," said Bill Walton.

He would capture a second title in Los Angeles in 1971-72. Then the familiar pattern began anew. Before the next Lakers season, he sought to renegotiate an existing contract and held out of training camp.

In what turned out to be his final appearance, a Game 5 loss to the champion Knicks in the 1972-73 NBA Finals, Chamberlain's line could have come from his prime - 23 points and 21 rebounds in 48 minutes.

The subsequent September, he signed a $600,000 deal to be player-coach of San Diego in the rival American Basketball Association. But he was physically unable to play, had little interest in coaching and was done after one season.

Isolated in the mansion he designed in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, Chamberlain would focus afterward on volleyball, movies, commercials and various business ventures. Gradually, except for book tours and sporadic interviews, he faded from view.

After his death, in reviewing the photographic record of his life, I was struck by how many showed Chamberlain with rubber bands around his wrist.

Was this his Rosebud, the childhood talisman that explained the man?

On the occasion of his 50th birthday in 1986, he was asked about the odd fashion statement by Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford.

Turns out they were a reminder of his childhood, of simpler times. He'd begun keeping the rubber bands on his wrist in case they were needed to hold up the high white socks he favored.

"I kept wearing them," Chamberlain said, "because they reminded me of who I was, where I came from."

When being "Dippy" was enough.