A tipster phoned me the other day to say that Wilt Chamberlain is playing tennis and he has a truly terrible backhand.
OK, as news tips go, maybe this one wasn't of Woodward and Bernstein caliber. But it was a vital piece of information for those of us who recognize the importance of keeping tabs on Wilt's evolution as an athlete.
In college, Wilt ran track and played basketball. Then he specialized in pro basketball for several years, dabbled briefly in boxing, and has always considered himself a world-class endurance driver. He speaks of past pinball triumphs. In more recent years he has become a serious beach volleyball player, and has played some racquetball and polo.
And now tennis? I phoned Wilt at his palatial home high atop Mulholland Drive.
"Terrible backhand?" he snorted. "I like that. Some guy calls you and tells you I have a terrible backhand. That must mean my fore hand is not looking bad, that the rest of my game is not too shabby.
"Well I'll tell you this--compared to my forehand, my backhand is terrible. I have a really good serve, by the way. But he ain't lying. My backhand's bad. You gotta crawl before you walk."
Wilt explained that he has always loved tennis as a fan, but never picked up a racquet until last September, when he found himself with some free time. He indulged his lifelong fantasy. He has been taking lessons, working hard.
"I'm like the kid who had to work all his life, never got to play cowboys and Indians. This is my shot."
All his life Wilt has been too busy playing games to play tennis. He is determined to make up for those wasted years.
"I'm surprised I'm as good as I am," Chamberlain said. "I'm really quite happy with how far I've gotten. I'm thinking of changing my name to Wendell."
"Who's the best tennis player in the world?"
"Right. A combination of Wilt and Lendl--Wendell."
Sounds real preppy. I asked Wilt what is his goal in tennis.
"To have a game you can enjoy in the twilight years of your athletic life," he said.
It is truly shocking to hear Wilt Chamberlain, a 7-foot-1 and 1/16th Peter Pan with a goatee, refer to twilight years. The guy is only 51 years old. I've been expecting an announcement that he plans to fly to Vero Beach next month and try out for the Dodgers at third base.
But it's true, Chamberlain really is old. Recent generations of NBA superstars have chipped away at Wilt's achievements, and he's down to his last 50 or 60 league records. He watched the recent NBA All-Star Game with some apprehension as Michael Jordan scored 40 points, two under the record Wilt set in the 1962 game. If Chamberlain had hit all 16 of his free throws that day, he would have scored 50 and the record would not be hanging by a thread.
Wilt has nothing against Jordan, but he's not as knocked out by Jordan's dunking as some are.
"Jordan dunks twice as many basketballs as I ever dunked," yawned Wilt, whose friends still call him the Big Dipper. "He does something that Gail Goodrich used to do, and Dr. J. He eases out of a lot of defensive situations, while someone else is doing all the work, he cheats out to half court. Then he gets those slamma jamma damma dunks, all by himself.
"I never had the pleasure of one of those free dunks. I never scored a basket by myself (undefended), not until later in my career when I played against the Elmore Smiths and Bob Laniers, who really played lousy defense."
Chamberlain has never played in one of those NBA old-timers games that have become a big part of the All-Star Game weekend. Maybe the league is withholding an invitation until Wilt officially retires. He's been out of the NBA 15 years, but officials probably figure he's a one-man taxi squad, just waiting for the right opportunity to return. Maybe he'll step in when Kareem retires.
In the meantime, Wilt will stay in shape with his new passion.
"My greatest high in tennis was when I was on a public court, rallying," he said. "Three kids came by and they were watching. One of them said, 'Geez, if I could only hit the ball like that!' "
Wilt said he rarely wins a match, because he seeks out tough competition. You don't improve by playing patsies, and Wilt has big plans in this sport.
"The dress code might keep me out of Wimbledon," Chamberlain said. "I'm not a conventional dresser. I wear those black leotard things. But if you're ever at the French Open and you hear the head linesman saying, (Wilt switches to a French accent) 'Game, Monsieur Wendell,' that will be me. Same guy."
Before hanging up, Chamberlain offered to clear up a misconception.
"To be honest with you, I really don't have a terrible backhand."