Showtime’s Goliath

I specified the cable outfit in the post title because Goliath has the same title as the excellent Billy Bob Thornton lawyer show. That title refers to BBT’s legal gifts, not his height: he’s only 5’10”. The Goliath in question is Wilt Chamberlain aka Wilt the Stilt and The Big Dipper.

Goliath is a largely successful attempt to set the record straight about Wilt Chamberlain. He transformed himself into a cartoon character when he claimed to have slept with 20,000 women in his 1991 book, A View From Above.

The claim was bullshit as well as impossible. His many women friends urged him to cut it from the book, but the publisher insisted. Controversy sells books. The timing couldn’t have been worse: it came out at around the same time Magic Johnson informed the world he had AIDS.

Wilt’s book tour was rough. He was slammed by women’s groups and AIDS activists alike. He deserved the slamming, but it didn’t reflect who he was in real life. He never married because he didn’t want to cheat and his appetites were as large as his frame. We learn that Wilt’s sisters were his best friends and he had many platonic female friends. That’s not the portrait of a genuine misogynist, but the wound was self-inflicted. It bothered Wilt who turns out to be a surprisingly sensitive soul.

That’s all I’m going to say about Wilt’s sex life. It’s of little interest compared to the importance of Wilt as an NBA trailblazer. The comedian and filmmaker W. Kamau Bell nailed it in the final and best episode of this three-part docuseries: “Wilt Chamberlain invented the world famous, photogenic, millionaire seven-foot-tall basketball player. He created a job that did not exist before.”

Wilt was the first of many to fill that job. Free agency didn’t exist in Wilt’s day, but he was such an awesome force that he could dictate where he played. We’ve become used to superstars demanding to be traded and getting their way, but, for good or ill, they’re following in Wilt’s footsteps.

When LeBron James took his talents to Miami to form a Big Three with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosch, he was emulating Wilt. The first NBA Big Three was Wilt, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor with the Los Angeles Lakers.

As a player, Wilt could do it all except shoot free throws. That makes comparisons to Shaquille O’Neal inevitable, but Wilt was a better passer and defender. Shaq, however, won four championships to Wilt’s two.

Loser was a label unfairly applied to Wilt. His supporting cast wasn’t strong enough to beat the Boston Celtics dynasty in a playoff series until 1967. The loser label bugged the shit out of Wilt but sports cliches are hard to live down. During the second half of his career, he shot less, passed more, and became a team player. Wilt was so talented that when he decided to lead the league in assists, he did it.

The best parts of Goliath reveal Wilt’s kindnesses to friends, family, and even virtual strangers. His public image was of a selfish egomaniac but that’s not how those close to Wilt remember him. They called him Dippy, which was an affectionate play on The Big Dipper. FYI, that nickname had nothing to do with Wilt’s game but his love of star gazing. Something else I learned from Goliath.

Wilt loved talking on the telephone. He’d call his friends and spend hours chatting. One phone friend in particular was special to Wilt. Stephanie Arizin was the grandchild of one of Wilt’s early team mates, Paul Arizin, a hall of famer in his own right. Stephanie was terminally ill and out of the blue Wilt called her. They had weekly conversations until she died at age sixteen. He did it out of kindness. It’s the best “athlete helps a sick kid” stories I’ve ever heard. Wilt even got Bill Russell to sign an autograph for Stephanie. Russ never signed autographs. He did it for Wilt.

The Chamberlain-Russell rivalry was real as was their friendship. (I reviewed Netflix’s Bill Russell documentary last May,) There was a long period of estrangement after Russell publicly criticized Wilt’s work ethic but Shaq brought them together for this 1993 commercial:

That summit meeting of great big men ended with Wilt shaking Russell’s hand and resuming a friendship they’d both missed.

Wilt’s politics were awful. He was a pull yourself up by the bootstraps conservative who campaigned for Nixon in 1968. Wilt later felt used by Nixon because of the latter’s notorious Southern strategy. Wilt subsequently confined his political activity to voting.

I knew a lot about Wilt as a player when I tuned into Goliath. I learned a lot about Wilt Chamberlain the human being from watching it. Like the man himself, Wilt’s flaws and virtues were outsized. I didn’t expect to conclude watching Goliath liking Wilt as much as I do now.

One of many things Wilt and I DO NOT have in common is a love of talking on the phone. I dislike it, but if a call came from Dippy, I’d pick it up and let him talk my ear off. Unfortunately, Wilt died way too young of a heart attack in 1999.

Here’s the trailer for Goliath:

If you’re a Showtime viewer, watch Goliath on the Showtime any-time streamer. All three episodes are available to binge and binge I did.

Grading Time: I give Goliath 3 1/2 stars and an Adrastos Grade of B+. The same marks I gave Bill Russell: Legend.

The last word goes to Wilt Chamberlain with a number from his mercifully brief side hustle as a singer. He could do it all except shoot free throws and sing.