Wilt Chamberlain was a god. At 7’0” high and moved like a butterfly and stung like a bee. He was the first and only man to score 100 points in an NBA game. He said that he slept with 20,000 women and most people believed him. Wilt had the charm and charisma and prowess unlike anyone in the game. According to Malcolm Gladwell in an episode of This American Life, Wilt had one short coming, he didn’t want to look like a sissy. He had an 80% free throw when thrown underhand that he never used again after the game where he broke 100. When asked why, he said he didn’t want to look like a sissy. He would throw less than 40% by throwing overhand even though he had shown that throwing underhand he was more than amazing, he was iconic. He stopped that because he said he didn’t want to look like a sissy. I don’t believe it, not for a second.
Let’s think about it, let’s look at the video, did he look like a sissy? No. Did anyone think so? No. Did he think so? A man who throws 100 in a game does not care about standing out, what he cares about is being able to play. A man who can overcome what was thought to be possible is a master, he is perfection and in America, perfection doesn’t play. You see, perfection is boring. Because perfection is seen as unattainable, it is not relatable. Perfection is tolerated and expected in finances, it is expected in engineering at NASA. But in entertainment, it is not perfection that is valued, but drama. Drama is not in perfection, drama is winning in-spite of lack of perfection.
We love Michael Jordan not for his ability to do well on the court, but because we know that he was terrible at it in High School. He overcame his lack of talent and for that we love him. We don’t love Einstein for the theory of relativity, we love him because he was called an idiot in school and couldn’t get a job after his PhD. He was a looser but he made it anyway. America is a country of 300 million mediocre normal human beings who are just one step from becoming stars or millionaires. We stand in line for that lotto ticket because we know we came from nowhere but wait till they see us after we get that number. We are the people who stand in line to see Simon Cowell chew someone out but show his surprise at us or better yet, have him chew us out but have the country love us precisely because he thought we were no good. We are a country of underdogs and a country where anything is possible. Every immigrant that came here, came here for the American dream. The American dream is not a white picket fence, that could have been in France or any other place, America was the place where streets were made of gold and opportunities were there for the taking. Plenty of land and resources and all you needed was a gun and gumption. That’s how immigrants drained the swamps, killed the Bison and pushed off the Natives. A bunch of never do wells who came from all over the world where they were nobody’s and came out to America and they all had a chance to become somebody’s. And the one thing that all somebody’s hate, is someone who shows them that they are all nobody’s.
If you watch Daniel Ariely’s new movie (Dis)honesty, you’ll realize that NBA is not the Olympics. NBA is professional entertainment. The men who play basketball are amazing athletes that are not paid to win, but to entertain. They are stars and actors in a play where we get to watch them do things we can’t but we get to root for our team of giants, we get to tell them to do things as we yell at the screen, we see their mistakes and we tell them to fix it and when they do we are happy and when they don’t we are not happy.
That’s where Wilt comes in. Wilt Chamberlain was perfect. He was too perfect. There was nothing to hate. And when there is nothing to hate, we will hate him for just that: for his perfection. He had a choice, be a star and an amazing athlete and be hated and benched, or be an entertainer and be seen on televisions across the nation. But to be seen on the screens of a nation that was still very racist and needed an entertainment figure, for them, as great entertainer who as big as he was, as great as he was, couldn’t throw a free throw. Imagine, the simplest thing that anyone can do, he “cannot”. The thing that I as a ten-year-old on the basketball court with my friends and my black rubber basketball could do, he could not. His seeming inability to throw overhand didn’t make him a sissy, it made him relatable and defeatable. It made him human and it made him not so scary to a an America that was getting used to the future domination of black Americans in professional sports. His perceived hubris made it seem that if it was just me and him playing horse or two on two, that I could win. That any one of us could win. To bring in another Malcolm Gladwell analogy, this weakness made it so that we could be the light infantry David with a slingshot and Wilt could be the heavy infantry Goliath and the free throw our my rock and sling. When he played underhand, it wasn’t that he looked bad, he looked amazing, he looked effortless, he looked godly, he a black man, playing on white screens, looked too good. We, the America, internally, hated it. Black or white, we saw this as a threat to our own self worth. Not just us but his teammates hated it and the owners and coaches hated it. He knew it and he made a choice, but not before he had that one game to show us all, of who he really was, what his talent really was. He had one game of freedom where he let us see the brightness of his star.
Sad as it is, in a country that pertains to love freedom, that prides itself on the hate for “sameness” that we saw in Orwell’s 1984, we are still human and we still hate the one in the tribe who sticks out. Our reptilian brain forces those who stick out to come down to earth if they want to be one of us, to melt into the average. But sometimes, the diamonds will shine, even if for a brief moment, and we will see the amazing potential in all of us to be great, if we just let ourselves be.