Late in the afternoon of Saturday, March 11, 1972, Wilt Chamberlain, 35, and in the 13th season of a career that would last only one more year, began welcoming a few hundred of his closest friends to a party at his recently-completed Bel-Air mansion. He had christened the massive 7,100-square-foot pleasure palace Ursa Major, after the constellation that contains the stars that compose the Big Dipper, the nickname he vastly preferred to Wilt the Stilt. Many of the guests, who included his Los Angeles Lakers teammates and a friend from the football world named O.J. Simpson, were still there as dawn broke high in the Santa Monica Mountains. Wilt himself didn't get to bed until 7 a.m., though that was not unusual for the Dipper even on, say, a routine Tuesday.
The housewarming marked Wilt's true arrival as a member of the Hollywood glitterati—the 7'1" host wore what the Los Angeles Times described as a "pale-gold antelope suit"—and also punctuated the fact that the Philadelphia-born Chamberlain, in his fourth season as a Laker, had finally found a true home.
"Wilt was a wanderer and a searcher," says Jerry West, Wilt's teammate back then and now a consultant with the Los Angeles Clippers, "and I'm guessing he could've called a lot of places home. But there's no doubt he loved being in L.A. Wilt loved the beach. He loved the weather. He loved being a celebrity in a town that worships celebrities. L.A. fit him. The bigness of it all, the star quality."
So as the dust begins to settle after the expected-yet-clamorous West Coast landing of LeBron James, who last week agreed to a four-year, $153.3 million free-agent deal with the Lakers, one must ponder the historical role that the City of Angels in general and the Lakers in particular have played in the transformation of the NBA's power elite over the years. And, not incidentally, the role that West, during his nearly 60 years in L.A., has played in three of those moves, all involving game-changing centers.
West teamed up with Wilt to win a championship in 1972, which came in five games against the Knicks two months after Wilt's immortal Ursa Major bash. Several years later West coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the UCLA product who, in a 1975 trade, had maneuvered himself back to SoCal. Abdul-Jabbar had spent six seasons in Milwaukee, where he had earned one championship, three MVPs and the reputation for being "moody" or "aloof," the code words of the day for a black athlete who distrusted the media.