By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
Posted May 8 2012 10:09AM
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If these walls could talk.
Would they tell the story of a number -- 20,000 -- that is even more outlandish than the 100 points once scored in a single NBA game?
Would they tell the oversized saga of a giant who attracted throngs of interest throughout his life and a steady stream of some of the hippest celebrities of the day to parties at his hilltop retreat?
Or merely the tale of a proud man who died alone in his bed, beneath a mirrored ceiling that reflected his many contradictions and retracted to reveal a view of the open sky?
The house that Wilt Chamberlain built in 1971 is large -- 7,158 square feet, sitting on a 2.58-acre parcel of land -- and distinctive and today, like the reputation of Wilt himself more than 12 years after his death from heart failure, seems to be in a constant state of remodeling.
The current owner, Dmitri Novikov, who purchased the property for $6.55 million in 2008 from television writers George Meyer and Maria Semple, has been systematically renovating both the interior and exterior in a project that is probably still another year from completion.
The purple shag carpets, the Arctic wolves' nose fur that was used for a bedspread and to upholster furniture in the fireplace pit and the mood lighting has been replaced by stone floors and sharp lines and accents in black, silver and gold. Where you might have been able to close your eyes and imagine "Starsky & Hutch" playing on the TV or the hot licks of Sly & the Family Stone over the stereo in Wilt's day, now there is an air of distinctive, cool Euro-chic.
Yet overall, the towering 45-foot ceiling in the great room, the 2,000-pound 3-dimensional, triangular wooden front door, the steps that constantly walk you up and down from room to room, level to level and the overhead rain shower that seems to send water from the heavens could be reminders of only one man.
"Wilt-style," said project manager Randy Robbins, "there's really no other way to describe it."
Novikov, a Russian-born investor in oil, gas and real estate, has very little knowledge of Chamberlain, except that he was one of the greats of the game. Yet he and his family pay homage by leaving Wilt's original pool table set up in a game room just off the fireplace and, when the remodeling is complete, will re-hang several magazine covers and photos of Chamberlain on one wall in a TV/game room. There is a lithograph of Wilt guarding fellow Hall of Famer John Havlicek, a photo of Wilt with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the set of "Conan the Barbarian", a cover shot of Wilt showing off the house in Ebony magazine. One of the guest bathrooms has the original wallpaper put in by Wilt; black drawings on a gold background of five naked women look like they came from the opening credits of a James Bond movie back in the Sean Connery era.
Architect David Tenneson Rich found the plot of Bel-Air land in the Santa Monica mountains that was once a Nike missile site during the cold war and it was he and Chamberlain together who formulated the plan to construct the house with nothing but triangles. It was straight from the book of Frank Lloyd Wright, a design using a single geometric shape. Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal used to be Wilt's nearby neighbors, just two houses down. Mariah Carey now lives a canyon's echo away to the right. It is not the kind of street that attracts or tolerates gawkers. Security cameras announce visitors long before they reach the front gate and private security abounds.
There are 16 rooms and six bathrooms that were built with five freight car loads of redwood, enough for 17 normal-sized houses, and 16 tons of Bouquet Canyon Stone. There originally was a wraparound moat pool across the back of the house that has been divided into three separate pools and now is being made shallower, since there are no 7-footers in residence. The pool is still accessible through an opening in the floor of the dining room and a photo of Wilt perched there was once featured in Life magazine.
The house, less than five minutes off the busy 405 Freeway and a short hop to the beach, has floor-to-ceiling windows on all sides and the 360-degree view ranges from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific Ocean to the Stone Canyon Reservoir and Century City. Chamberlain paid $60,000 for the land and spent a little more than $1 million to build the home he called Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. Complete with a spiral staircase in the living room, a balcony that looked down from the second story and enough interesting nooks and crannies and idiosyncrasies, it was Wilt's pride and joy.
"I wanted my house to encourage friends to come see me, again and again," Chamberlain wrote in his 1973 autobiography. "I wanted them to be as relaxed in the house as I would be."
Thus, Wilt the host was offended when he invited Jim Murray to one of his first parties and the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist wrote in the Los Angeles Times:
"It's not a house, it's a nursery rhyme in brick ... The lord of the house should go around saying, 'Fe fi fo fum!' It's the kind of place where you'd expect to see a lot of little kids in mouse hats riding plastic elephants ... The rooms are South American Bat Cave."
Virtually all of the groovy garishness of the 1970s is gone now. The gold, Cleopatra-inspired sunken bathtub upstairs has been left in place but covered over. What Wilt used to call the "kinky details" are just memories.
The downstairs playroom is now just another empty space and will soon be converted to an office. But in its infamous heyday, it was known as the "purple room" or the "x-rated room." When you entered, you had to take off your shoes, because the entire floor was covered by a sectional sofa along the sides and a huge waterbed in the middle, surrounded by fully mirrored walls.
"I suspect that a few of my guests might have taken off a little more than their shoes in that room on occasion," Chamberlain wrote.
Like the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the end of any tour of the Vatican, all historians and mere prurient curiosity-seekers eventually seek out the master bedroom, Wilt's so-called "sybaritic paradise," ground zero for his legendary boast that he'd bedded 20,000 women. From his gargantuan bed, Wilt had a spectacular nighttime view of the twinkling lights of the San Fernando Valley through the window on one long wall or he could hit a switch and the triangle-shaped mirror on the ceiling would slide silently back to reveal an outdoor blanket of the stars.
It is the room where Wilt said he had many of his "most memorable times." Yet through the years when his sister, Barbara, would come to visit, she would usually come up empty while searching for traces left behind by the supposedly endless stream of female visitors and then tease her big brother, saying it must all be fable.
Fact or fiction, reality or myth, the aura around Wilt's house on the hill lives on.
"I bring in contractors to do work," said Robbins, the project manager, "and they get down on their knees and bow. Or I see them rubbing the bedroom walls for good luck."
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