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CROWE'S NEST / JERRY CROWE

Wilt Chamberlain's spirit, and legend, live on in his mansion on the hill

The former Lakers great and noted playboy has been dead 10 years, but subsequent owners of the palace he built in Bel-Air have preserved many key elements, even some 'kinky details.'

October 13, 2009|JERRY CROWE

At the House That Wilt Built, the spirit of the outsized original owner still reverberates.

Ten years after Wilt Chamberlain was found dead of heart failure in the upstairs bedroom, ownership of the hilltop hideaway in Bel-Air has changed hands twice, but the memory of the former Lakers center has been respectfully preserved even as much of the interior has been reconsidered and remodeled.

Many of what Chamberlain once called his home's "kinky details" are gone, among them a mirrored ceiling in the master bedroom that retracted to reveal open sky and a Cleopatra-inspired sunken bathtub that sat at the foot of the bed.

A downstairs "playroom," where Chamberlain had a wall-to-wall water bed floor, is just another room, sans water bed.

And the moat swimming pool, though still accessible through an opening in the living room floor, has been divided into three smaller bodies, a lap pool built into the middle.

Which is not to say that the former playboy's paradise has been turned into anything resembling a traditional home.

With its five-story living room, 200 tons of stonework, soaring redwood beams and five-foot-thick, 14-foot-high, 2,000-pound front door, the triangular temple is still spectacular.

Owner Dmitri Novikov, who last year paid $6.55 million to buy the house from television writers George Meyer and Maria Semple, says he knows next to nothing about Chamberlain.

"Except that he was the greatest basketball player," says the Russian-born investor. "That's it."

Still, like Meyer and Semple before him, Novikov seems imbued with a caretaker's sense of responsibility to honor the legacy of the prodigious scorer who built the place in the early 1970s.

Novikov, though in the middle of an extensive remodeling project, has kept in place a high-relief photo series of an attractive nude woman papered floor to ceiling in a guest bathroom. Perhaps it's a nod to the boastful bachelor who had it installed and famously claimed to have bedded 20,000 women.

Also, like Meyer and Semple, the new owner plans to devote space in his family's home to memorialize a man he never met.

"Maybe in the billiards room, which has [the] original pool table, we'll put memorabilia over there," Novikov says. "Just for the history. Not because we knew him or loved him or were big fans [but] understanding he was an important and big guy and a lot of people love him and he was great athlete. Part of history."

Meyer and Semple, who left the memorabilia behind when they and daughter Polly moved to Seattle, felt the same compulsion.

"Our atrium became a Wilt shrine, with mementos from his days with the Globetrotters, Warriors, Sixers and Lakers," Semple notes via e-mail. "In a still from 'Conan the Destroyer,' he towers over a cowering Gov. Schwarzenegger. In another photo, he looms over a tiny Muhammad Ali on the set of 'The Mike Douglas Show.'

"To honor 'The Big Dipper,' " Semple continues, referring to the Chamberlain nickname the 7-footer liked best, "we drilled holes in our outdoor light fixtures in the shape of Ursa Major.

"This now seems a little crazy."

Maybe so, but Novikov has so far kept them in place.

Attorney Sy Goldberg, executor of Chamberlain's estate, says of his good friend, "I don't think he would have given a damn what anybody else did to the house for their purpose."

Chamberlain did with it what he wanted, Goldberg notes, and would have expected subsequent owners to do the same.

Chamberlain's pyramidal palace was "his baby," Goldberg says, and he planned to stay there forever.

"When people would say to him, 'It's going to be hard to sell,' he would laugh. He'd say, 'I'm not selling.' "

Goldberg says Chamberlain, traded to the Lakers from the Philadelphia 76ers in July 1968, originally planned to live near the beach and was looking to buy in Malibu. But Chamberlain's architect, David Rich, flew by helicopter over the Santa Monica Mountains and spotted a lot east of the 405 that overlooked the Stone Canyon Reservoir and, on clear days, offered spectacular views of Catalina Island and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

"That was the end of the ballgame," Goldberg says. "He could stand out there and nobody could see him. He had his privacy, which he cherished. It was everything he wanted."

Chamberlain bought the 2 1/2 -acre parcel for $150,000, Goldberg says, "and I thought that was a fortune because you could buy a lot in Beverly Hills in those days for less than $60,000."

For $1 million or so more, Chamberlain built his masterpiece, which he dubbed Ursa Major.

It was, a Times reporter noted after Chamberlain's death, "as much a monument to the legacy of the basketball sultan and his 20,000 legendary nights -- or at least, supposed female conquests -- as the architecturally eclectic San Simeon castle is to newspaper czar William Randolph Hearst."

Says Goldberg: "He wasn't a religious man, but this place was like a cathedral. It really was majestic."

Semple felt it too.

"It didn't seem possible to top Wilt in the bedroom," she notes, "but on Thanksgiving Day 2003 our daughter was born at home, right under Wilt's retractable mirrored ceiling.

"Would Wilt have been shocked? We'll never know, but our 5-year-old daughter is quite the basketball player."

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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