Our emotional investment in sports is so strong and so deep that we almost always prefer mythology to reality.
And the greater the athlete is, the more alluring and credible the mythology becomes.
So, with little empirical evidence, we accept all those stories of Babe Ruth's 600-foot home runs. We find it easy to believe Wilt Chamberlain could have been a world-class decathlete, a champion heavyweight, an all-pro tight end.
Among the many Bunyonesque feats attributed to Chamberlain is one that is almost universally accepted: Until the NCAA took steps to prevent the practice, he used to dunk his free throws.
As with most myths, the ingredients for this one include a dash of what we know to be true added to ample quantities of what we'd like to be so.
Foul shots were Chamberlain's bugaboo. A 51 percent shooter from the line in his NBA career, he was constantly experimenting - shooting underhanded, positioning himself at the edge of the line, moving a few steps back.
While a teenager at Overbrook High, the Philadelphia native began to tinker with a more radical technique.
High school teammate Mel Brodsky recalled last week that occasionally, while "messing around" before or after practice, Wilt would get a running start, take off from the free-throw line and dunk the ball.
"But we never practiced it nor [did he] do it in a game at Overbrook," Brodsky said.
Brodsky had told Chamberlain's biographer, Robert Cherry, the same thing. It was, Cherry said in an email last week, the only indication from all the interviews he did for the book and from "the thousands of newspaper articles I read" that it ever happened.
In Chamberlain's freshman year at Kansas, 1955-56, dunked foul shots would still have been legal. But there is apparently no film, no still photos, no written account confirming that he ever did it in an official game.
The 7-foot-1 Chamberlain told the Los Angeles Times years later that in his first year at Kansas, as at Overbrook, he used to "fool around" with the technique.
"I would take a step back to just inside the top of the circle, take off from behind the line and dunk," Chamberlain said in 1989, adding that he didn't try it in games because "I was a pretty good foul shooter then."
Apparently, the only instance in which he dunked a free throw in a public setting came in December 1955, during the annual scrimmage between his Kansas freshman team and the Jayhawks varsity.
And that's when the myth took flight.
Attending the scrimmage in old Hoch Auditorium that day was Tex Winter, the future NBA legend who was then the 34-year-old head coach of the Jayhawks' in-state rival, Kansas State. When Winter saw Chamberlain dunk a foul shot, he nearly fell over.
"He wasn't at the top of the circle, but he was about three steps behind it," Winter, now 95, recalled in 2011. "He ran to the free-throw line, took off and dunked the ball."
Already intimidated by the prospect of having to face the Kansas center in Big Seven play for three years, the crafty Winter knew he had to find ways to limit his dominance.
Fortunately for him, he was in a position to do so. And at the 1956 NCAA convention in Los Angeles, he sprang his trap.
"I was the chairman of the Coaches Rules Recommendation Committee," Winter said. "I explained to the coaches at the convention what I saw and said something's got to be done."
Newspaper stories from the convention that week were peppered with comments on how something needed to be done to save basketball from the behemoths. And so, before Chamberlain's college varsity career had even begun, a foul-shooting technique that for all anyone knew had never been used became an existential threat.
SMU coach Doc Hayes, who called it "cheating," described to sportswriters what Chamberlain was doing.
He "would leap into the air and dunk the ball in," said Hayes, whose team, not coincidentally, was scheduled to meet Kansas that March.
Winter himself added that Chamberlain "never missed" foul shots, "shot 100 percent."
The conservative NCAA didn't need much prodding. It already was alarmed by the impact made by athletically gifted - and, some would argue, black - big men such as Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
So, at Winter's urging, the rules committee decided to slay the giants. It established an offensive goaltending rule, banned out-of-bounds passes over the backboard, and outlawed foul-shot dunks.
The strictures were narrowly targeted. How many 1950s players besides Chamberlain, after all, were physically capable of an athletic feat that essentially was the same one employed decades later by Julius Erving and Michael Jordan in NBA slam-dunk contests?
Maybe the NCAA and NBA ought to make the foul-line dunk legal again. It would certainly be an improvement over the current system.
I've always hated foul shots, even before my two last-minute bricks cost the red team the coveted St. Pius X intramural title of 1959.
They seem so unnatural. The clock stops. The action stops. The noise stops. Then, unguarded, unobstructed and unaided by adrenaline, the shooter takes aim.
It's a system that's led to such aesthetic abominations as Hack-a-Shaq, the underhanded Granny Shot, and intentional misses. The last minutes of far too many games - foul-a-thons - are unwatchable.
If baseball can strip down the mechanics of the intentional walk to a manager's hand signal, why can't basketball just award one or two points for every personal foul and get on with the real action?
Then again, if that were the case, we'd have missed all those amazing free-throw dunks that Wilt Chamberlain never made.