Wilt showed up in the most dazzling, outlandish outfit I'd ever seen him wear, reminding me of one of those two-colored Popsicles. At a party after the ceremony he beckoned me over, and after greeting me nicely, he forced himself to confront me, stuttering a complaint: "My man, what's this I hear about you criticizing me for the way I played Willis Reed in that game?"
He was referring, of course, to the famous Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, in which an injured Reed, shot up with God knows what, had limped out on the floor and immediately scored a basket against Wilt that lit up the Knicks and inspired them to victory. And yes, I had indeed mentioned that episode in the article I'd written about Russell, but I was not the one tendering the criticism. Rather, I was quoting Russell, who claimed that had he been Wilt in that situation, he wouldn't have backed off the wounded Reed but would've gone right at him, again and again. Oddly, it was a backhanded tribute to Wilt, pointing out again how reluctant he was to exert his great strength against a gallant foe.
So I replied rather testily, "Hey, Wilt, come on, read the damn article. I didn't say that. I was just quoting what your skinny friend over there told me." And I pointed at Russell, across the room, surrounded in glory, drinking in the accolades.
Wilt looked enviously at Russell. There he was, after all these years, the conquering hero once again. Wilt then turned back to me. "You think you could do me a favor?" he asked, almost sheepishly.
"Sure. What is it?"
"You think you can do one of those HBO things on me that you did on Bill?"
"Sure," I said. I was pretty certain HBO would be delighted.
"I could really use that," Wilt said—and maybe for the first time I realized how beaten down he had been, how much he'd been mocked for the 20,000-women claim. Neither of us knew, of course, that by October of that year, before the HBO special could be shot, Wilt would be dead at only 63.
"I'll give you a call," I said.
"Thanks, Frank. I'd appreciate that."