WHEN KANSAS'S 7'1" sophomore Wilt Chamberlain scored 52 points and grabbed 31 rebounds in his varsity debut against Northwestern in the fall of 1956, the only question was how many NCAA championship banners the Jayhawks would hoist over the next three years. Instead, Chamberlain soon found himself in a role that he would often unhappily play: the giant slayed.
The college game hasn't seen a more potent force in the paint than the Big Dipper, a Philadelphian who was as fast, strong and athletic—he won two conference titles in high jump—as he was towering. By the time he left Lawrence, the NCAA had banned three practices he had put to devastating use: offensive goaltending, taking off from the foul line to dunk free throws and the lobbing of baseline inbounds passes over the backboard. "People today cannot imagine the impact that man had on us all at that time," former North Carolina center Joe Quigg told SI in 1982. "Wilt was just a colossus."
Averaging 29.6 points and 18.9 rebounds as a sophomore, Chamberlain, as expected, led the Jayhawks to the '57 NCAA final at Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium. There they met a North Carolina team filled with scrappy New Yorkers who had needed three overtimes to beat Michigan State in the semis the day before. The final—considered one of the best ever—started with Tar Heels coach Frank McGuire sending 5'11" Tommy Kearns to face Chamberlain for the tip-off. It ended, after three more overtimes, with Kearns launching the ball toward the rafters as the final seconds ticked down on a 54--53 victory that would establish North Carolina as a power.
Chamberlain, who had 23 points and 14 boards despite being triple-teamed, was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. Yet the defeat haunted him. "I got the tag of being a loser because of that game," he said in an interview in '98, a year before he died. "It was the most devastating thing that ever happened to me in sports."
Despite Chamberlain's 30.1 points and 17.5 rebounds in 1957--58, the Jayhawks tied for second in the Big 8 conference and failed to make the NCAAs. Chamberlain left Kansas that spring and spent what would have been his senior year touring with the Harlem Globetrotters before moving on to the NBA, in which he would set or match more than 40 league records before retiring in '73. In Game 7 of the '70 Finals, he was the Lakers' center whom the Knicks' Willis Reed famously limped out to oppose, with Reed inspiring New York to the title. In all, Chamberlain was 2--4 in Finals series, each loss reopening the wounds he had first felt so deeply at Kansas.
When he returned to Lawrence in 1998 to see his number 13 jersey raised to the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse, Chamberlain told the crowd about his despair over the '57 title loss. Struggling to hold back tears, he said, "I felt like I let the university down." The crowd's applause as he left the court made it clear: If that had ever been true, he had been forgiven long ago.