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Know Your KU History: Wilt Chamberlain’s Return to Allen Fieldhouse

In many people’s opinion, Wilt’s return was the single greatest non-basketball moment in the history of Allen Fieldhouse.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Allen Fieldhouse has seen its fair share of non-basketball related events. Indoor track and volleyball have been played in the old barn, and it has hosted dignitaries from around the country and the world. Allen Fieldhouse has held galas celebrating 100 years of KU basketball, and roundtables with the program’s greatest living coaches. Those were all great events, but one event, taking place during a half time trumps them all.

Yesterday was the 18th anniversary of the day that Wilt Chamberlain returned to Allen Fieldhouse after several years and had his famous #13 retired and lifted to the hallowed rafters of KU’s iconic gym. It was a ceremony that those that witnessed it in person will never forget.

I was beginning the second semester of my junior year at KU, and was seated in my typical place with my friends- about halfway up the largest student section along the corner. We always got those seats and never had to camp out or wait in giant lines to get them. It was the sweet spot, where if you timed your walk from your house just right, you could slide right on in behind the campers but before the onslaught of other students. Anyway, we were there the customary one and half hours before tip, but there was an unusual energy in the place. Different than normal.

January 17, 1998. We all knew Wilt was making his return to Lawrence after an extended and unexplained sabbatical that saw “The Bigger Dipper” return to campus for the first time since he’d left it 40 years prior. What I, and I’m assuming many others in the crowd especially the students didn’t realize, is just how important this day was to become- for us, for the university, and for Wilt himself.

My first sighting of Wilt came about 15 minutes before tipoff. He came strolling through the tunnel below us and walked behind the benches to his seat in the first few rows behind the Kansas bench. I remember thinking that I’d never really known what it was like to be in the presence of true greatness, but at that moment, I and many of the people whose gaze was directed toward that area, felt it. Wilt Chamberlain had an aura of greatness around him, one that those around him could feel.

My second and third thoughts went like this: I marveled at his stature and then immediately felt sorry for the poor souls who were seated behind him.

Fast forward to halftime and the presentation of various gifts by the KU administrators. The event was MC’d by Max Falkenstein, who was one of the few people in the building to have seen Wilt play. The speech given by Chamberlain was nothing to write home about it, but I remember the emotion from Wilt and the crowd as being intense. It was.

Kill six minutes of your day and watch the video of the ceremony. You won’t be disappointed. It’s one thing that I’ll always love about the University of Kansas basketball program- the relationship it has with its fans. Watching that video for the first time since the actual event was eye opening. Yes, I remember the roar from the crowd when Wilt’s accomplishments were listed, and yes, I do remember the roar of the crowd when his famous #13 was finally unveiled.

But what I don’t remember, and couldn’t remember, was the emotion from Wilt before he started talking. This happened in a time before cell phone cameras caught all the events in your life, and it was a time before Allen Fieldhouse had video boards. You saw what you could see from the seats you were sitting in. Wilt wiping tears from his eyes as the crowd piled adulation after adulation on him is stirring. The look on his face as he took the microphone and started to speak is priceless. A man who had accomplished so much as a professional looked like he was about to be at a loss for words.

It truly was one of the greatest moments in the history of Allen Fieldhouse.