Dad’s identity no tall tale, man says

By Mark Baker | Living Here, Sports | |

The South Eugene High grad says he has no doubt a 7-foot-1 NBA Hall of Fame legend was his father

What are the odds?

That the late, great Wilt Chamberlain, one of the most legendary sports figures of all time, would have a son he never knew about?

And that the son would be raised in Eugene, of all places?

Chamberlain, the 7-foot-1 Hall of Fame professional basketball player, died in 1999. If what he notoriously professed in his 1991 memoir, “A View From Above,” is anywhere even approaching the truth – that he slept with 20,000 women in his lifetime – maybe the answer to the first question is not so ­farfetched.

The second question, however, pushes the randomness envelope.

But the cover story – “A Giant Shadow” – of this week’s Sports Illustrated magazine delivers some astonishing news: Aaron Levi, a 1983 South Eugene High School graduate, believes without a doubt that he is Chamberlain’s long lost son.

The evidence in the story about Levi, now 50 and a San Francisco printmaker and digital artist, is less than watertight but certainly persuasive.

“I was skeptical,” writes Gary Pomerantz, the journalist and author of the SI piece, who also wrote a book about Chamberlain in 2005. “But Levi came to me with more than a story. He had documentation. He showed the ‘nonidentifying’ papers from his 1965 adoption, which did not name his biological ­parents but described them in compelling detail.”

A photograph of Levi at age 16, his junior year ­picture at South Eugene, juxtaposed with a famous photo of ­Chamberlain, at 25, holding a sign that says “100” – on the night he set his NBA scoring record of 100 points in a game shows a remarkable resemblance.

“Oh, there’s no doubt,” the 6-foot-5 Levi said Thursday by phone from his Haight-Ashbury district apartment in San Francisco. “There’s just no other person she was with at the time,” he said, referring to his biological mother, who lives in her native England. “I don’t know how much more I could look like him.”

Levi, who is gay and is described in the article as “desperately trying to hide it” during his high school years, struggled with his identity as an adopted child growing up in Eugene. He said he’s been overwhelmed with attention since the magazine’s story came out on Wednesday.

“I’ve never experienced anything quite like it,” Levi said. “I’ve never been so popular.”

The folks from “Inside Edition” called Thursday, as did the people from “Maury.” And there was the woman from NBC Universal, Gloria, who left a note and flowers on his doorstep.

And, of course, the story was all over the planet via both print and social media.

But Levi insists he did not agree to the SI article, which he only discovered on Monday would be a cover story, for attention.

“It’s about trying to make a connection to your black family,” he said. “It’s about a connection to your people. Just telling the story has eased my mind.”

And, he said, he certainly didn’t do it for money.

“No!” he said. “God, no. There is no money.”

The article, which describes a visit to Chamberlain’s longtime lawyer, Sy Goldberg, accompanied by Pomerantz, notes that more than $6 million was doled out by ­Chamberlain’s estate upon his death, much of it to children’s causes, as well as $650,000 to his alma mater, the University of Kansas. “Everything is gone,” ­Pomerantz quotes ­Goldberg as saying.

As the SI story explains, Levi, who attended the old Lincoln and Ida Patterson ­elementary schools in Eugene, as well as Roosevelt Middle School, and also delivered The Register-Guard, spent years searching for his biological parents.

He and his adopted sister Naema Clark, nine months older and also born in San Jose, Calif., were both adopted by Don and Harriet Levi, formerly of Eugene. He and Clark searched together for years for their biological parents.

Spent one night together

In 2004, Aaron Levi obtained papers with ­background information on his birth through the Santa Clara County (Calif.) Social Services Agency in San Jose, Calif., ­according to SI.

Levi’s birth mother was described “as a single, white, 26-year-old secretary of English-French descent who had been raised in England,” the story says. “Levi’s biological father was a single, 28-year-old black professional basketball player with black hair, brown eyes and bronze complexion, 6′-10″, 240 pounds, born in Kansas, with a master’s degree,” based on information provided by Aaron’s birth mother.

Not all of the facts lined up, the magazine article notes. Chamberlain was a native of Philadelphia. He had attended the University of Kansas for three years without earning an undergraduate or master’s degree.

The papers also indicated that Levi’s biological parents had only a “casual relationship” and that the mother wouldn’t provide the father’s identity because she “wanted to protect his name,” the story says.

In 1964, Chamberlain was 28 and played for the San Francisco Warriors.

When Levi in 2009 reached his 5-foot-2 birth mother in England, whose identity is not revealed in the SI story, she confirmed his suspicions that it was Chamberlain she met in a San Francisco jazz club in the spring of ’64.

She said she and Chamberlain spent just one night together and she never saw him again, but did notify Chamberlain about five months later that she was pregnant and would put the baby up for adoption, and reconfirmed this with him after the birth.

“She knew nothing about basketball or U.S. sports,” Pomerantz writes. “She knew little about Chamberlain’s history. ‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’ she asked Levi at one point” when they finally met in Boston in 2010.

Children “deserve to know”

No one in Aaron Levi’s adopted family doubts the story.

“No, no, I don’t have any doubts about it,” said Don Levi, a retired University of Oregon philosophy professor who spent more than 30 years at the UO and moved to Hawaii a dozen years ago with his second wife.

Don Levi, 78, who divorced Aaron’s adoptive mother, Harriet, now of Portland, in the early 1970s, spoke by phone from his home in Honokaa, Hawaii, and said this about the SI story: “Of course Aaron did the right thing, sure. I don’t think he fully anticipated the noise it would make …”

Aaron Levi’s sister, Clark, is also 50, and drives a TriMet bus in Portland, where she graduated from Jefferson High School in 1982. She also attended South Eugene High for a year, in 1979-80, and is one of four mixed-raced children adopted by Don and Harriet Levi.

Does she believe Wilt Chamberlain, who had no children that he knew of, is Aaron Levi’s biological father?

“Yes, I do,” Clark said. “There’s no doubt in my mind. His (biological) mother has no reason to lie. She’s from another country. Didn’t know much about sports; has no reason to lie.”

In the SI story, Aaron Levi describes his hope to one day persuade one of Chamberlain’s relatives, either of his surviving sisters or one of his many nephews, to perform a DNA test to help him prove his claim.

Levi said his goal in going public is to encourage other adopted children to seek their roots.

Closed adoptions are not fair to the children, he said.

“People deserve to know who made them,” he said.