The Night In Studio City That I Played One Game Of Tennis With Wilt Chamberlain

L.A. Blogfather and L.A. Times Blogmaster Tony Pierce has a picture I presume he took posted to his Busblog of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who in the frame I presume is in the midst of getting an assist with his new L.A. Times blog that Tony helped land — and all of which is awesome.

Tony’s proximity to the NBA’s All Time Leading Scorer and one of my All Time Leading Heroes reminded me of the night back in 1991 that I ended up over at the tennis courts off of Whitsett by the L.A. River playing tennis with Wilt Chamberlain.

The backstory is this. Before it was seen fit to destroy the fabled Racquet Centre that stood at the corner of Ventura and Vineland, I met a fellow by the name of Allan, via the regular men’s doubles drop-in tennis nights hosted there. Basically for $10 or so you got to play 2-3 hours of tennis with a variety of partners and opponents, and on one night I ended up across the net from Allan who was a very capable player. At the end of our set he apparently thought the same of me and asked if I’d like to play singles with him one of these nights. I said sure. We exchanged numbers and soon enough we were getting together once or twice a week either at the Racquet Centre or the courts on Whitsett and playing.

Starting off Allan consistently defeated me. But as we kept on eventually I raised the level of my play and the matches got much closer, with me winning more games and even the occasional set. Now the thing about Allan was that for as good a player as he was he wasn’t as good a sport. I’d bet he went through three maybe four racquets in the course of our matches. And by “went through” I mean destroyed, as in purposefully broken. He’d miss an easy lob and next thing he’d be cursing heartily and flinging his stick either into the ground or against the fence. Repeatedly. Sometimes he’d spare its life and continue. Other times he’d just whack the thing until it cracked. And whenever that happened he’d calmly walk over to his bag, extract the next victim and continue as if nothing had happened.

The behavior was always ridiculous but whereas it would genuinely unnerve me in the beginning, I eventually grew to accept that this was just an inevitable part of a game with him — especially when I started winning. The one thing I could never get around were the bad calls he’d make. If things weren’t going well for him, inevitably he’d call a fair first serve long or a deep volley out that was in. I’d put up with the first couple but eventually I’d call bullshit and he’d tell me to fuck off and we’d argue until he’d show how big he was by allowing us to replay the point. What a guy.

Why he had these flagrant (and expensive!) tantrums was a mystery. But even more of a curiosity was who he was or what he did. Always sporting the best fake-bake tan that money could by coupled to a long, wet-look tightly curled perm that seemed straight outta the ’70s, he finished the fashion statement with a slew of gold chains around his neck perhaps to match the gold-trimmed gold Mercedes convertible coupe he drove. He never talked about what he did, nor did I really ask. The only info I got of him was that he had a kid or kids, knew plenty of rich folk and did a lot of partying with them at a lot of swank westside bars and clubs.

So one night I’d just biked back to Sherman Oaks from the Racquet Centre after the end of drop-in session. Allan hadn’t been there that evening. A few minutes after I got home the phone rings and its him and all he tells me is that their fourth has dropped out at the last minute and would I be interested in joining them for some late-night doubles at the Whitsett courts. I look at the clock and it’s after 9 p.m. but I say what the hell and bike over there.

When I arrive I make my way past empty courts toward the sound of Allan cussing and upon my arrival at the courtside gate, I see him off in the corner beating himself and his racquet up for some botched play. A few feet from him is some guy who later I find out owns a $12-million mansion up on Mulholland. And when I look to the other side of the court I see none other than 400-foot-tall Wilt Fucking Chamberlain standing at the net and smiling at Allan’s antics.

I don’t know if I can communicate the shock at turning a corner and seeing the Greatest Basketball Player Of All Time. Certainly n L.A. there are always opportunities to see celebrities: One might be at a red light on Cahuenga Boulevard when David Lee Roth pulls up driving the car featured in the “Panama” video; likewise with Michael J. Fox in a red Ferrari at Hollywood and Highland. You might be standing in line behind Deborah Messing at Le Pain Quotidien on Melrose, or serve Brooke Shields ice cream the year “Blue Lagoon” came out. One might even have the opportunity to help fix a flat tire on Daryl Hannah’s bike on Riverside Drive and get a hug and a kiss for your efforts. But there was just something beyond surreal about it being 10 p.m. at a nearly deserted Studio City tennis complex and kablammo: there’s a living legend — and you’re gonna play with him. How often does shit like that happen? Not much, even in Los Angeles.

As such I stood pretty much frozen at the fence until Allan saw me and wondered out loud why the fuck I was just standing there.

“Waiting for you to finish your foolishness,” I countered, and in I went. I was introduced and I shook hands with Rich Dude and then Wilt’s hand enveloped mine and I basically looked at his face all the way up there and wanted to say that it was an unforgettable honor to meet him but instead the idiot in me took over and I babbled about my first basketball game being in 1972 and seeing him play and he was and is awesome and ohmygawd this is just such a huge thrill.

To Wilt’s credit he graciously allowed me to prattle on and I probably would have kept going until my lungs had run out of air except Allan brought me back to earthe with “Oh bleeding Jesus can we just play now?”

To my credit I turned to Allan and told him to shut the fuck up and go take his frustrations out on his racquet. Wilt laughed. Allan rolled his eyes.

And so we played. It was me and Allan against Rich Dude and Wilt Fucking Chamberlain. They won the spin for serve and Wilt brought it with me receiving. I can imagine that if Wilt wanted to he could’ve clobbered the ball, but instead he sent a polite one to my backhand that I promptly buried into the net, 0-15.

Allan cursed.

Then it was Allan’s turn and Wilt wasn’t so nice, but Allan beamed it straight at Rich Dude who couldn’t handle it, 15-15. Back to me, I lobbed my next return of Wilt’s serve over Rich Dude’s head and Wilt was there to crush a deep cross-court shot past my lame and late rush to the net that Allan doinked, cursing, into the night sky, 15-30. Wilt tried to finesse his next serve to Allan but Allan was able to apply his wicked backspin that left the ball just out of Wilt’s long reach, 30-30. Wilt’s next serve came to my forehand with a little more heat and with a tentative hit I sent it back to him and he sent it back to me and I drove it hard toward Rich Dude up at the net who managed to get his strings on it and send it back at a sharp angle to dribble and die on our side before Allan could get there, 30-40.

Wilt spared nothing trying to put away the first game of the set with his next serve to Allan. It ricocheted quick off the ground and went out wide it was all Allan could do to barely touch his racquet to it as it screamed by.

“Out!” he called late, as Wilt was already tapping the second-serve ball over the net to us.

“What’s out?” asked Rich Dude, a bit incredulous.

“The serve, it was just long,” Allan said, pointing to the service court line.

A bit of a bemused look on his face, Wilt just stood there. Maybe I should’ve too, but I just couldn’t put up with Allan’s bullshit. Not so early into the proceedings. Not against Wilt Fucking Chamberlain. So instead I shook my head.

“I saw it in.” I said a little weakly. “Nice serve.”

And with that Allan had the tantrum to top all tantrums. He flung his racquet against the tarp-covered fence behind him, walked over punctuating each step with a curse, picked it up and slammed it repeatedly to the concrete where it began to disintegrate, all the while defending his call with every other word being an expletive in one form or another.

I was embarrassed. Rich Dude was embarrassed. Wilt was too, so much so that he almost casually walked over to his tennis bag, slung it up over his shoulder and started heading off the court because he’d had enough. As he did I wanted to beg him not to go, but I knew it would do no good. Hell, I didn’t want to be here anymore either — especially if Wilt wasn’t.

So instead I said after him, “It was a pleasure meeting you Mr. Chamberlain,” and as he ducked his head low getting through the gate he half turned and said “Shame it couldn’t have been under better circumstances” and was gone.

By the time Allan had stopped his fit I was already over at my bag packing up. Without a word from either of us I walked past him and when I got to the gate I heard him chuckle a “Whatever!” and ask Rich Dude if he wanted to play some singles. I made my way to my bike with the sound of them hitting the ball and left as I’d arrived, with Allan swearing. Weird.

I played tennis with him a few times after that, but only when we’d get paired up during drop-ins at the Racquet Centre, which was demolished in 1998 and a strip mall put up in its place.