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5 Things You Didn't Know About Wilt Chamberlain

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Wilt Chamberlain. The mere mention of the Big Dipper's name evokes images of hoops dominance and romantic impossibilities. The man who once scored 100 points in a single game and claimed to have bedded 20,000 women was a fairly enigmatic figure, though, as his huge athletic gifts made him something of a loner throughout his career. As we continue our new series of five things you didn't know about famous people, let's take a look at Wilton Norman Chamberlain.

1. He Wasn't Just Great At Basketball

Although Chamberlain is most known for his exploits on the basketball court, he was no athletic one-trick pony. As a high schooler he was intensely interested in track and field, and he continued this passion when he went to college at Kansas University. While at volleyball-mag.jpgKansas, Chamberlain won three straight Big Eight high jump championships, ran the 100-yard dash, and could hurl the shotput up to 56 feet.

After his basketball career ended in 1974, the Big Dipper picked up a new hobby: volleyball. That year he became a board member of the International Volleyball Association, a fledgling pro coed volleyball league that only lasted until 1979, and brought his intimidating 7'1" frame to the Seattle Smashers' front line. Chamberlain's presence brought enough attention to the league that the IVA's All-Star game was televised. (Of course Wilt won the MVP of the game.) His contributions to volleyball earned him a spot in the sport's Hall of Fame.

2. He Nearly Boxed Muhammad Ali

Chamberlain was notorious for always seeking out a new challenge, but he missed out on one that became one of the great "what if?" scenarios in sports history. According to Don Cherry's biography Wilt: Larger than Life, legendary boxing trainer and promoter Cus D'Amato approached Chamberlain in 1965 with a lucrative offer to box heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali. Philadelphia 76ers owner Ike Richman eventually talked Chamberlain out of the match, but the idea just wouldn't die.

chamberlain-aliD'Amato again offered to train Wilt for a fight against Ali in 1967. In this fight, football star Jim Brown would act as Chamberlain's manager. Although Wilt was taller, heavier, and had over a foot on Ali in the reach department, Chamberlain's father, a boxing fan, warned his son away from the fight.

It was in 1971, though, that it looked like this throwdown was really going to finally happen. Wilt signed a contract to fight Ali at the Houston Astrodome on July 26, 1971, potentially for the heavyweight title if Ali could beat champion Joe Frazier that March. However, Ali dropped the Frazier fight for his first professional loss, and Chamberlain ended up backing out at the last minute thanks to an escape clause in his contract.

3. He Knew How to Fix a Car Problem

Chamberlain loved cars, and he was known for cruising around in his Cadillac convertible or a custom-made lavender Bentley he'd imported from England. What Chamberlain craved, though, was speed. The only hitch was that he couldn't fit his giant frame into any of the sports cars on the market; he allegedly had to take the seat out of his Lamborghini Countach and replace it with a padded mat just so he could fit behind the wheel.


Most people would just resign themselves to driving some big boxy ride with plenty of legroom in this situation. This was Chamberlain, though, and his solution to this conundrum was characteristically over-the-top: he designed and built a fully custom Le Mans-style racecar. The yellow ride, called Searcher One, was built for Chamberlain in 1996 at a reported cost of $750,000.

4. He Trotted the Globe

Most people think of Chamberlain as a member of the Lakers, Warriors, or 76ers, but his first pro basketball gig was actually with the Harlem Globetrotters. After losing in the finals of the NCAA tournament during his junior year at Kansas, Wilt wanted to make the leap to the NBA. NBA rules didn't allow players who hadn't finished college, though, so Wilt signed up with the Globetrottters.

Financially, Chamberlain probably made out like a bandit by skipping the NBA to head to Harlem. At the time, the average NBA player made less than $10,000 a season, while Wilt's deal guaranteed him $65,000 each year. Chamberlain immediately became the team's top draw; who wouldn't want to watch a seven-footer play shooting guard? After a season of enthusiastically throwing himself into the Globetrotters' skits and shooting, Wilt jumped to the Philadelphia Warriors of the NBA.

5. That 20,000 Number May Have Been Exaggerated

Chamberlain's famous claim that he slept with 20,000 women first appeared in his 1991 autobiography A View From Above. While Chamberlain was indeed renowned as an incredible pick-up artist and ladies' man, for him to hit such a lofty number he would have needed to bed 1.2 women a day every single day from the age of 15 until he wrote the book.

Although the 20,000 feat would have been logistically difficult, Chamberlain allegedly told his on-and-off girlfriend Lynda Huey, "What's a zero between friends?" to imply that the number was actually more like 2,000. According to David M. Pomerantz's exquisite must-read Wilt, 1962, lifelong friend and confidante Lynda Huey thought that number sounded about right.

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here..


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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