The first time they met was in December of 1956, in Lawrence, Kan. — inside some all-purpose room at the student union that was reconfigured to accommodate a few TV cameras.
Somebody shoved a few tables together and placed some chairs behind them so the players could sit down and face the media, and if he was asked any memorable question about how he was about to become a bystander to history, Joe Ruklick cannot recall it.
But even before the proceedings began, before anyone could ask Wilt Chamberlain about the collegiate debut that would take place the next day, Ruklick leaned across the table and nervously stuck his hand in the direction of this massive sculpture of a man the national media had come to see.
"First of all, taking his hand was like trying to hold the wide end of a tennis racket," said Ruklick, at that time an 18-year-old sophomore center from Northwestern University.
"So I was still looking at it when I said, 'Wilt, I just wanted to apologize — I was picked as the starting center at the North-South High School Game two years ago in Kentucky, where they wouldn't let you play because you were a Negro. I stood in your place, and that was wrong, because you should have been there.'
"And Wilt, incredibly gracious, just said, 'Hey, my man — don't give it any thought. You earned it.' "
From that moment — even though they would meet only once more in the next three years — the tall, stocky white kid from a village in central Illinois was bonded to the colossus from Philadelphia.
Of course, Chamberlain, two years his senior, may have had another reason to be gracious: sympathy. The next day, he set two Big Seven Conference records by rolling up 52 points and 31 rebounds with astonishing ease, and hardly anyone noticed that the poor kid trying to guard him scored 22 himself.
That wouldn't be the last time the two men would collaborate on a number that turned the sports world on its head.
Remember what else Joe Ruklick isn't much remembered for? Read the rest of Dave D'Alessandro's fine piece to find out.
And, from a different night, but just because it's such a great picture:
Both pix may be clicked to enlarge, although, sadly, not quite to life size. They were swiped from Rompedas, who has a bunch more.
Thanks for the reminder, C. (Who is from Philadelphia, of course. (And, shhh. Don't tell her that wasn't the 76ers that night.))
[Added] There's more.