Being Big, or Being Wilt Chamberlain

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There's something uniquely human about a crummy, limited, nervous-seeming 7-foot NBA player; as I hurtle into a pre-dotage too neurotic/stress-intensive for me to even enjoy pickup ball anymore, I find that the NBA player I feel the most like on the court is Andris Biedrins, all handcuffed and terrified and avoidant. I fear that I most resemble Hasheem Thabeet. This is not the hugest step down, admittedly -- I had some Hornacek-ian moments at my low, long-gone peak, but only a few of them -- but it's something. An overdetermined guard or overmatched wing player is one thing, and if it's a familiar NBA thing it's also clearly true that the defective player in question is a superhuman athlete with some crucial shortcoming. A self-conscious big man is different: seemingly there by physical accident and possibly against his will, he is condemned, anxious, someone who is very clearly and very uncomfortably at work out there in his shorts. Our basketball dreams, our happy memories of happy moments, are one thing; this is the opposite. There are times, most of them not on a basketball court, when we will all feel like Andris Biedrins out there. So, yeah, have a great day!

The converse of this is that dominant NBA bigs are almost impossible to understand, let alone love. Shaquille O'Neal was, for a decade, just a beefy 20-year-old bully dunking on an eight-and-a-half foot basket against a bunch of annoyed fourth-graders. Dwight Howard is actually just an annoying fourth-grader, a Skittle-stuffed Superman cracking up at his own Hangover II references. The results are the results, but the process is one big bullying ugh. I never saw Wilt Chamberlain play, but for all the superhuman implausibility of his stats (and seriously look at them) I can't say I ever felt I was missing much. He was bigger and deffer and dominated because of that, and if he wasn't quite the chuckling cologne-bomb that is Dwight Howard then he still wasn't my type of player. Anyway, I assumed this.

And he probably wasn't, honestly: even if he was more elegant than I imagine, Chamberlain was big enough and good enough to lack the crucial element of struggle that I look for in my favorite players. If the game seems too hard, almost punishingly so, for big men out there seemingly against their wills, then it will always seem too easy -- everything will always seem too easy -- for players big enough and good enough to simply apply their will to the game as Wilt did.

But if basketball is easy for these bigs, the rest of life is still the rest, albeit viewed from a higher vantage point. There's nothing especially profound about this observation, but it feels surprising, still, to remember it. So there's something bracing about this brief, wittily illustrated interview with Wilt Chamberlain, in which he discusses his various size-related insecurities. It's from Blank on Blank, a Kickstarter-funded endeavor that we're fans of over here; they did that amazing Muhammad Ali Space Odyssey video we linked to last year.

None of this means that Wilt Chamberlain was Just Like Us or even a good dude or anything but himself; that self happens to be someone who would sleep with a few thousand women and refer to himself by his full name. But he was also a person who felt like a freak on a bus, who didn't know what to do with himself, and so still someone dealing with fundamental human things, as real and nervous if less well-concealed than they are in the galumphal, dart-eyed, terrified performances of your Biedrins-es or Thabeets or Johan Petros. Players like Wilt don't remind us quite as plainly as the Biedrins/Thabeet/Petro axis of how hard it is to be a human being their size, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

There's something that I remembered recently (I referenced it in the Requisite Basketball Card Part of my Vice column on Derrick Rose) about Greg Oden. I wrote many, many rookie cards for Oden during my years at Topps, and found him a uniquely interesting player to write about: self-effacing and uncommonly willing to say things not pertaining to Playing On The Biggest Stage or Taking It To The Next Level or whatever. Oden, as he told it, wanted to be a dentist as a kid. He kept that wish into his teens, at which point it became harder and harder to imagine as his body became something strange and imposing and ungovernable. "I got big," was how he put it, which is the sort of thing that seems eloquent only in retrospect. It's mostly the body that gets big, though. The person more or less stays the same size.

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