Who'd ever guess there's a link between a Kansas University music-theater legend and the eventual presence of basketball superstar Wilt Chamberlain on campus?
If you've never heard of Etta Moten Barnett you should have. She was one of the heavy hitters KU sent to the plate when Uncle Dippy was being recruited in Philadelphia around 1955. Wilt often admitted that her contacts made a notable impression on him.
Etta recently turned 100. She's a bona fide heroine as well as an entertainment legend. She deservedly received KU's Pioneer Woman award.
Etta Moten was born in 1901 in Texas, spent her teen years in Kansas City, then came to KU in 1927 as a divorced woman with three daughters. How's this for guts? Divorce was considered terrible, single motherhood for a divorcee was often regarded as downright shameful, women had a far tougher time making it in the social-economic-educational climate then. Oh, yeah, Etta happened to be black.
Oprah Winfrey says the perfect answer to bigotry and discrimination is excellence. Etta Moten had that and more. Somebody with a good ear heard Moten sing at KU and invited her to join the prestigious Eva Jessy Choir in the east. After graduation, Moten appeared in movies and in theater productions like "Sugar Hill," "Lysistrata" and "Porgy and Bess".
In 1934, Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to sing for President Franklin D.'s birthday party at the White House. This KU product was the first black woman to perform there.
In '34, Etta married Claude Barnett, founder of the Negro Associated Press. They did a lot of notable domestic and foreign things of value together before his death in 1967.
Now to Etta and Wilt Chamberlain.
Along with Moten, KU used heavyweights like the legendary Phog Allen, chancellor Franklin Murphy, Kansas City Call editor Dowdal Davis, chemistry genius Cal VanderWerf, Saturday Evening Post editor Ben Hibbs and other major civilians like Joan and Roy Edwards and Dolph Simons Sr. Full-court press! This was before the NCAA had so many of ridiculous rules and any alum could recruit. Now you don't dare try unless you're officially a member of the school's staff and faculty.
In case you've been on Mars for 50 years, you know the Big Dipper was black and quite conversant with the greater liberalism he could find around Philadelphia and New York. KU had had two black varsity basketeers up to then, LaVannes Squires of Wichita and Maurice King from Kansas City. Would Lawrence be too redneck and backward for Dipper's proclivities?
Moten and Davis as African Americans talked at length with Wilt to convince him he could set his own course here and accomplish much, just as they had done.
The indefatigable VanderWerf who could sell cold chili to Alaskans dwelled furiously on KU's academics, Phog convinced Wilt there was good basketball played hereabouts. Wilt came here thinking the Phogger would get an extra season or two to coach him although rules mandated retirement after the 1955-56 season, Wilt's freshman year. The Dipper admitted this was a disappointment.
Chamberlain played one year of frosh ball and two at the varsity level. The pros had a four-year rule so Wilt couldn't enter the NBA right away. He bypassed what would have been his senior season (1958-59) to join the Harlem Globetrotters for about $85,000, then began as a pro at Philadelphia.
Owner Eddie Gottlieb of Philly drafted Wilt right out of high school and had total rights. Nobody thought of a kid going from prepdom to the pros then. Wilt didn't try, figuring he'd have fun as a collegian something so many kids never consider anymore.
Wilt's $85,000 Trotter wage along with the $10,000 Look Magazine paid him for his story about leaving early was big bucks then. Imagine what kind of loot Uncle Dippy could have toted home in today's market.
Money was a factor in Chamberlain's leaving early, but the another major glitch was how college teams sagged three and four men on him and negated basketball that was fun. It was constant constipation in the paint.
Sad note: When Wilt returned in January of 1998 for accolades and his jersey retirement ceremony, his health was clearly failing. Not only was he having heart and circulation problems but the wear and tear of his athletic endeavors had left one hip much higher than the other; replacement would be necessary.
KU teammate Lynn Kindred has become one of the best heart experts in the country. Works out of Kansas City. Lynn, Bob Billings and Monte Johnson tried hard to get Uncle Dippy in for a major checkup; no sale.
Came 1999 and Wilt was dead, heart condition. He always traveled his own route, but maybe if he'd detoured to Kindred and Co., he'd still be with us.
Oddly, Etta Moten Barnett and Joan Edwards are among the precious few survivors of the Great Wilt Hunt. Who'd ever have guessed that the seemingly invincible Uncle Dippy would be gone before some of his recruiters?