All week long, ESPN and other media outlets have celebrated Sunday’s 50th birthday of Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player who ever lived.
Well, Dave Stallworth, the greatest Wichita State player who ever lived, is not celebrating a birthday this week or even this month. He turned 71 in December.
I decided to write about Stallworth because a friend suggested it. But I didn’t really have a reason to write about Stallworth. There wasn’t a peg. Stallworth continues to live a quiet life in Wichita with his wife of 29 years, Gloria.
But Stallworth is my favorite Shocker player, so writing about him is a joy. I started going to games with my father in 1961-62, when Stallworth was a sophomore who became eligible at the semester break. He was the best player on the best Shocker teams.
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I decided anytime’s the right time to write about Stallworth. He’s Dave Stallworth.
He has been fighting a number of physical issues in recent years, including a bad knee that he said has kept him from attending all but a couple of WSU home games this season.
Stallworth was in his normal seat, several rows behind the Shockers’ bench, for a game against Creighton last month. And he showed up for the Missouri State game on Feb. 9, along with other Shocker legends Cleo Littleton, Antoine Carr and Cliff Levingston, for Homecoming ceremonies.
He was in a wheelchair. And for those of us who remember how dazzlingly athletic Stallworth was in his prime as a basketball player, the sight of him in a wheelchair was a jolt.
“Just some knee issues,’’ Stallworth said. “That’s it. Other than that, I’m all right. And my knee is getting better.’’
Stallworth said he would have been to more games this season except that the friend he comes with recently had open-heart surgery.
It can’t have been more than 50 years since Stallworth arrived on campus. Can it?
Wichita isn’t a professional sports town. It’s a WSU town. And even though it’s been five decades, almost, since Stallworth put on a Shocker uniform, he has high status here.
After he retired from the NBA, Stallworth came back to Wichita and worked for years at Boeing. He made friends here, from CEOs and executives to those who worked alongside him in the factory.
The greatest thing about Stallworth is that he has never recognized his greatness.
And when people reach out to him to ask about his well-being, it embarrasses him.
“But I do understand,’’ he said. “People don’t know what kind of condition I’m in, so it doesn’t bother me when they ask. Like I said, I’m OK.’’
Stallworth said he still pays close attention to the Shockers, as he always has, and that he likes this team. And he especially likes its coach, Gregg Marshall.
“Well, I don’t know how long we’re going to hang on to Gregg,’’ Stallworth said. “He’s a good coach. I like the whole thing. The only thing I have against him is that his big guys . . . they’ve got to play like big guys. If they’re 7-feet, play at 7-feet. But those kids think the game well and they play well. They do the right things.’’
Stallworth said he only met former Wichita State coach Harry Miller, who died last week, once.
“It was while I was playing in New York,’’ Stallworth said.
He said he was sad when former Shocker great Warren Armstrong, later Warren Jabali, did last summer.
“He was a nice person and a hell of a basketball player,’’ Stallworth said. “At 6-2, he played out of position at times. But he could rebound with anybody.’’
Stallworth said he helped Wichita State recruit Jabali out of Central High in Kansas City, Mo.
“You talk about 50 years,’’ he said. “So we’re talking about having seen a lot of these guys come and go.’’
Stallworth said he is recognized whenever he’s in the public and that he relishes the attention.
“It surprises me, though,’’ he said. “But I try not to change. I try to be the same old Dave the Rave. That’s a nickname I got from (former WSU sports information director) Tom Vanderhoofven. He’s the only guy I knew in the (administration) at that time and at the time I didn’t really revel in it. But it was a pretty good nickname, wasn’t it?”