Wilt Chamberlain's experience with racism in Lawrence at KU foreshadowed nation's
Aram Goudsouzian, a history professor at the University of Memphis, said Chamberlain's legacy should not be limited to his basketball prowess.
"He was a national icon," Goudsouzian said. "He was the first real, black celebrity star in college basketball."
Chamberlain died in 1999, less than two years after seeing his number retired during a dramatic half-time ceremony at Allen Fieldhouse. He was 63.
In "Can Basketball Survive Chamberlain? The Kansas Years of Wilt the Stilt," a lengthy article in the latest issue of Kansas State Historical Society's "Kansas History" magazine, Goudsouzian contends that Chamberlain's time in Lawrence "foreshadowed the changing landscapes in ofAmerican sports and race relations."
Though Chamberlain was hardly a civil rights activist, Goudsouzian said, his fame and ego often put him on a collision course with Lawrence's then-de facto segregation.
Businesses -- bars and restaurants, mostly -- that had long refused to serve blacks found it difficult to turn away Chamberlain.
"I'll tell you a story that was well-known at the time," said Leonard Monroe, a Lawrence native and a longtime friend of Chamberlain's.
"(Then-KU basketball coach) Phog Allen's son, Mitt, and Wilt went to a cafe downtown -- I can't remember which one it was -- and the owner said, ‘Mr. Allen, we're not going to serve him,'" Monroe said.
"Now, Mitt Allen was a lawyer. So he says, ‘Why you ol' blankety-blank, if you don't serve him, I'm going to close this blankety-blank place down," Monroe said.
"They served him," Monroe chuckled.
But Chamberlain's being served didn't mean other blacks were.
"Me? Oh, no, I couldn't eat there," said Monroe, who is black. "Wilt could, but the rest of us couldn't."
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