Posted on Sep 24, 2014 in Alumni News, News, and Sports
When he made his triumphant return to Allen Field House for the Jan. 17, 1998, retirement of his No. 13 Kansas jersey, basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, ’59, assured the assembled fans of his renewed affection for his Jayhawk heritage and pledged to make himself an ongoing presence around Kansas basketball and all things KU.
“I’m negligent in not being here sooner,” Chamberlain said. “I’ve learned over the years that you must learn to take the bitter with the sweet, and how sweet this is, right here. I’m a Jayhawk and I know now why there’s so much tradition here and so many wonderful things have come from here.” Pointing toward his jersey hanging from the rafters, he continued, “And I’m now very much a part of it by being there and very proud of it. Rock Chalk, Jayhawk.”
Chamberlain’s death 19 months later cut short the overdue reunion between superstar alumnus and alma mater, yet KU fans’ ongoing affection for Chamberlain played a big part in Chamberlain landing the high honor of commemoration on U.S. Postal Service stamps.
“A cross-section of folks really supported us,” said Donald Hunt, the Philadelphia Tribune sportswriter who launched the Chamberlain stamp campaign with a 2008 newspaper column. “In particular, it was the folks at the University of Kansas—alumni, the basketball program, the chancellor of the university, and some of Wilt’s colleagues who went to the University of Kansas with him—who really wanted to see this happen. I’m really glad it’s coming to fruition; it’ll be here in a couple of months.”
At that, Hunt could not suppress a wave of gleeful laughter. A goal that he had tirelessly worked toward for six years had finally come to pass, with the announcement that the U.S. postmaster general, acting on the recommendation of the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, had selected Chamberlain for a commemorative postal stamp.
The two Chamberlain stamps, to be unveiled Dec. 5 in his hometown of Philadelphia, will be the final commemorative issues of 2014. Postal service officials have hinted that the artwork will feature Chamberlain in a Philadelphia 76ers or Los Angeles Lakers jersey; while it’s unlikely that one of the stamps will show Chamberlain in a Kansas uniform, Hunt emphasized that Jayhawks should not feel overshadowed.
“I know Kansas was near and dear to Wilt’s heart, and is near and dear for his family and the friends who followed his career,” Hunt said. “Everybody close to Wilt really appreciates everything Kansas meant to him. The ceremony is Dec. 5 in Philadelphia, and I think it’s going to be at a 76ers game, so it’s probably not a Kansas jersey [on the artwork], but we’ve never forgotten Kansas and Wilt’s never fogotten Kansas.”
Hunt’s “grassroots committee” included Chamberlain’s sisters, Barbara Chamberlain Lewis and Selina Gross, as well as former Overbrook High School teammates and other Philly basketball notables.
Hunt said the efforts to land Chamberlain on a commemorative stamp were ultimately about educating young Philadelphians and sports fans nationwide about the 7-foot-1 center’s remarkable career in both college and the NBA, as well as with the Harlem Globetrotters, but a welcome byproduct has been a renewal of friendships and acquaintances that Chamberlain made in his long journey.
“He is part of that whole Kansas basketball legacy,” Hunt said. “Dr. Naismith. [Coaching pioneer] John McLendon. Even [former KU and 76ers coach] Larry Brown knew Wilt, from his days in Los Angeles. So, yes, the main focus was about young fans learning about his legacy, his career, some of his accomplishments; but once I got into the campaign, I saw all the support we were getting from around the country and I realized that this also meant a lot to his colleagues and his family and friends. So that became an important part of it, too.”
Hunt encourages KU alumni and fans to join in a luncheon celebration he is planning for the afternoon of the stamps’ unveiling. Details will be announced here at kualumni.org when they are available.