October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

How to take the measure of a man when that man was Wilt Chamberlain? Start with the obvious: The 63-year-old basketball great—found dead of an apparent heart attack on Oct. 12 at his home in Bel Air, Calif.—stood a towering 7’1″, but he brought far more to his game than mere height. From 1959 to 1973, starring for the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors and 76ers and later for the L.A. Lakers, he set dozens of league records, including the tremendous feat of scoring 100 points in a single game. “I can assure you,” said former Laker teammate Jerry West after Chamberlain’s death, “that won’t be broken.”

He scored off-court as well and gained notoriety by claiming in a 1991 memoir that he had slept with 20,000 women. “Those who know me have no problem with that number,” said the never modest, never wed Wilt. But if some fans faulted him for living the high life (“Nobody roots for Goliath,” he’d say of bad publicity), the Philadelphia native’s way on the court was sure to dazzle. He was a tireless, physically intimidating showman, never more so than in his decade-long rivalry with the Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell. “He’s tall and he’s strong and he’s handsome,” Russell once said, “but the most important thing is he’s a very intelligent basketball player.”

In recent months, Chamberlain, who in retirement dabbled in everything from real estate to acting, was in declining health, losing weight and suffering from a heart condition, and he had complained of pain following dental surgery. The public never knew of these frailties. “Hard to believe,” says another ex-Laker, Gail Goodrich, of the death. “It’s awful that I won’t see him again.”

You May Like