Wilt Chamberlain was possibly the greatest basketball player and the greatest athlete ever. The 63-year-old Chamberlain was reported to have died of a heart attack, but we are supposed to ask how one of the world’s greatest and fittest athletes could possibly die of a heart attack.
Success in Every Sport He Tried
Wilton Norman Chamberlain was born in Philadelphia in 1936. He was 6’11” when he entered Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School, and led them to three public school championships and two all-city titles. In high school, he:
• ran the quarter mile in less than 48 seconds to set the U.S. high school record, and the half mile in 1:58.3,
• high-jumped 6’6″ and broad jumped 22 feet, and
• was the state of Pennsylvania shot put champion at 53’4″.
He was the most recruited high school player in the country, with more than 200 colleges interested in him. He went to the University of Kansas, where he:
• was the best basketball player in the country,
• won the Big 8 high jump championship his junior year,
• threw the shot put more than 47 feet, and
• was 4th in the 1956 Kansas Relays’ hop-step-jump.
In the National Basketball Association, he scored more than 100 points in a single game and averaged more than 30 points per game throughout his professional career. He bench pressed 500 pounds, was timed at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash and had an incredible vertical jump of 48 inches. After his incredible NBA career, he became arguably the best volleyball player in the world. At age 60, he ran in the Honolulu marathon and competed in a 50-mile race in Canada.
The Great Lover
Long after his athletic career ended, Chamberlain made news by claiming that he had had sex with 20,000 women. That comes to 500 women per year, or 10 different women per week in his 40-year career of sharing his sperm. This would probably make the world’s greatest athlete the most prolific lover of all time.
Chamberlain’s health first became an issue in the 1960s, when a former coach told the news media that the star player might have had a heart attack before the 1964 season. But Chamberlain denied it.
In 1992, when Chamberlain gathered with former teammates for a halftime ceremony marking the anniversary of their 1971-72 NBA championship, he had to leave early because he was having trouble breathing. He was admitted to a hospital and found to have an irregular heartbeat. He was released from the hospital after three days, wearing a heart monitoring device.
During his last years, he was diagnosed as having cardiomyopathy which means that his heart was too weak to pump blood through his body. He lost 50 pounds in the months prior to his death.
Cardiomyopathy can be caused by:
• arteriosclerosis (Chamberlain did not have high cholesterol and was still able to do amazing athletic feats in his 60s)
• damaged heart valves (he did not have this)
• genetic conditions (nobody in his family was reported to have a similar condition),
• long-term high blood pressure (his doctors never would have missed this)
• metabolic disorders such as obesity, thyroid disease or diabetes (nope)
• nutritional deficiencies of vitamins or minerals (his doctors would have made that diagnosis)
• drinking too much alcohol over many years (he was not an alcoholic)
• recreational drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines or anabolic steroids (no evidence of this)
• chemotherapy or radiation to treat cancer (does not apply to him)
• iron buildup called hemochromatosis (an easy diagnosis that would not have been missed),
• sarcoidosis or amyloidosis (his doctors would not have missed these)
• autoimmune diseases such as lupus (no evidence that he had any of these diseases) OR
Infections that Cause Cardiomyopathy
The most likely cause of Chamberlain’s cardiomyopathy was an infection in his heart with bacteria such as chlamydia, mycoplasma or ureaplasma (N Am J Med Sci. 2013 Mar; 5(3): 169–181). Regular bacterial and viral cultures will not grow these germs. A doctor would have had to order special cultures and sometimes even these cultures fail to grow them. It was only in 1999, after Chamberlain’s death, that researchers proved that chlamydia and mycoplasma cause the inflammation that forms plaques in arteries (arteriosclerosis), damages the heart and causes heart attacks (Science, 1999;283:1335-9). The first dependable test for the sexually transmitted Mycoplasma genitalium was approved by the FDA on February 1, 2019.
The fact that he lost 50 pounds and was unable to go anywhere in the last months of his life points to a diagnosis of heart failure, caused by cardiomyopathy (heart muscle damage), possibly caused by an infection such as chlamydia or mycoplasma. He could easily have acquired these infections from making love even to considerably less than the 20,000 women that he claimed. These infections may be cured by taking antibiotics, such as minocycline, doxycycline or clarithromycin, for several weeks or months. His body was cremated, so we will never know for sure how he died.
August 21, 1936 – October 12, 1999