Archive for Monday, October 18, 1999


October 18, 1999


Lawrence natives Bob Billings and Monte Johnson, two former teammates of Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas, attended Saturday's memorial service in Los Angeles.

Chamberlain's memorial service on Saturday morning.

"My feeling was after getting into heaven, Wilt had a slam dunk," said Monte Johnson, a former Kansas University teammate of Chamberlain. He attended Saturday's 90-minute service along with fellow Lawrence native and ex-Chamberlain teammate Bob Billings.

"The minister mentioned the same thing at the service. He said, 'All of you who experienced the earthquake this morning ... after Wilt got to heaven he met someone more important than him and got his slam dunk in," Johnson related.

Those were two of many humorous stories told at the memorial for Chamberlain, who died last week at the age of 63.

Johnson said he shed "tears of joy" during the memorial held at L.A.'s City of Angels Church of Religious Science.

"Joy because it was so fitting for Wilt. From the time you walked in the church until the time you left you could feel the love that was in that place and the respect," Johnson said.

"It's the most touching memorial service I've ever been to," noted Billings. "It was awesome and centered on Wilt off the court even more than on it."

Harlem Globetrotters legend Meadowlark Lemon and Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell were among the many speakers.

"I thought Bill Russell was magnificent. In some ways it brought some closure to whatever controversy existed or supposedly existed between the two," Johnson said. "Bill Russell said Wilt used to call him at odd hours and say, 'This is Wilton Norman Chamberlain calling for William Felton Russell.' After a few years of that he'd call and just say, 'Felton, this is Norman calling.'

Chamberlain's sister gave a funny and poignant speech.

"Barbara Lewis, one of his sisters, talked about when Wilt was 5 he used to get up early and help the milkman or iceman," Billings explained.

"She said Wilt was one to talk a lot and referred to him as a 'loudmouth.' It was said with so much humor and love. She said Wilt loved to play cards and cheated like a dog," Johnson noted.

Chamberlain's agent of 40 years -- Sy Goldberg -- told the group Wilt did a lot of things for charity but demanded they go unpublicized.

"I think Wilt has probably done as much for other people as any athlete in history," Billings said.

"Wilt gave things directly to the people who needed it," Johnson said. "He supported a lot of individuals and projects. It was all private."

Johnson and Billings are hoping to obtain a video of the service to perhaps share with Chamberlain's friends who couldn't attend the service.

"The minister who officiated (O.C. Smith) ... I've never heard a man sing better than he did," Johnson said. "The family requested he sing one of Wilt's favorite songs. He sang 'Danny Boy.'

"The service started with a woman singing, 'Wind Beneath By Wings' (by Bette Midler) and how could there be a dry eye after that? There were a lot of celebrities there yet it didn't seem anybody was there for show. It sure made you feel Wilt was properly remembered," Johnson added.

Properly remembered by many NBA greats.

"Nate Thurmond, Bob Lanier, Dave Bing, Hal Grier, Bill Walton, Connie Hawkins, heroes of Monte and myself," Billings noted. "It was an unbelievable gathering of people. Seven or eight of Wilt's 'Wonderwomen' -- the track team he sponsored -- came up from San Diego. Some of them went on to the Olympics. They shared memories of how much Wilt cared about them. It's something I'll never forget."


  • Billings and Johnson were asleep in their L.A. hotel rooms when the 7.0 earthquake hit California at 2:46 a.m. Saturday.

"I've been in them before with little rattles. This one ... I looked out the window and you could see the hotel swaying. It was 45 seconds the room moved back and forth," Johnson said.

"I've heard research the big one has yet to come. I thought maybe the big one had arrived. It was 7.0 which is big for how they measure them, yet for some reason it was shallow compared to a deep earthquake (and didn't cause much damage)."

"I'd been in an earthquake before but never on the 19th floor of a hotel," Billings said. "I knew it'd be fatal or over quickly. It's the first one I can remember that if you were asleep, it'd wake you up. The people there actually get used to it I guess."

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