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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Pettit

The Big Men of the Plains

In December, 1956, the Games of the XVI Summer Olympiad concluded in Melbourne, Australia, and two University of Kansas track and field Olympians had surprised the world. Al Oerter took the gold medal in the discus while fellow Jayhawk Bill Nieder won the silver in the shot put. They were the throws champions from the Plains! Since the Olympics were so late in the year, both Oerter and Nieder did not return back to campus until sometime in December or early January. By then, the cold winter had set in as Al and Bill were met by the absence of fanfare for their Olympic achievements by the Lawrence community. All of the notoriety and adulation was being heaped upon another Kansas athlete, a basketball player from Overbrook High School in Philadelphia named Wilton Norman Chamberlain.

Wilt Chamberlain always drew a crowd on and off the court
Wilt always drew a crowd on and off the court

Two years earlier, Wilt Chamberlain inspired the first national recruiting campaign in college basketball history. KU was his choice and he arrived in Lawrence as a campus celebrity and was the subject of feature articles in Time, Life, Look, and Newsweek magazines. He was a cultural phenomenon, now set to lead his team in the NCAA Basketball championship final against undefeated UNC. During the regular season, he had led KU with a nearly 30 points/19 rebounds per game average. On Saturday, March 23, 1957, in what was called the greatest college basketball game ever played, the teams went to three overtimes before the Tar Heels eked out a one-point win. Years later, Wilt said that this loss was the most painful of his life.

When Oerter and Nieder showed up for track practice the following Monday afternoon, there was Chamberlain seated at his locker right next to Al’s. They would soon find out that Wilt’s first love was track and field. Even before high school, the incredibly athletic Chamberlain had reportedly high jumped 6’6” and in the standing broad jump, leapt 22 feet. As a preteen he was exceptional as a middle-distance runner and could toss a shot put 53 feet.

Wilt’s strength and huge skeletal structure impressed Oerter. Wilt wanted to be a decathlete and saw the 1960 Rome Olympics as a possibility. Coach Bill Easton asked Al to work with Wilt on throwing the discus. Because of his height, Chamberlain struggled with the motion of the throw, but his incredible power was amazing. Nieder and Oerter helped him with the shot put too. Even with that, when Wilt placed his hand on a sixteen-pound shot, his fingers wrapped around it and touched his palm. These would be problems for a decathlete.

For Al, he utilized his own analytics in working with Wilt. He wrote, “A person can physically throw 80 meters, in my opinion. The limiting factor is the size of the circle versus the height of the thrower. A young person with a height of about 190cm/6’3”, a good arm length and a phenomenal turning capacity, can throw further than the world record. With Wilt, he couldn’t do it because, at 216cm/7’1”, he was too tall for the ring.”

KU sportswriter Chuck Woodling wrote a story about a friendly throwing contest between the three Kansas teammates that took place in the fall of 1957. “’Wilt came in one night when Bill Nieder and Al Oerter were there eating at the training table,’ a naïve freshman, John Novotny, related, ‘and he started talking to them, and then he told them he could throw the shot farther than either one of them.’ Moreover, Chamberlain bet he could beat both of them, and that sent Novotny and a handful of others to their rooms in search of spare loot. ‘There we were on that grassy knoll out behind Carruth-O'Leary Hall, with three of KU's most decorated athletes -- Bill Nieder, Al Oerter and Wilt Chamberlain,’ Novotny reflected. The trio had assembled to determine who could put a 16-pound shot the greatest distance.

“Oerter threw first, then Bill Nieder threw one past Al's. Then it was Wilt's turn. He turned his back, bent over and intertwined his fingers with the shot in his hands and sling-shotted it over his head. It went about two feet farther than Nieder's throw. No matter that throwing the shot in that manner was illegal in track and field. This wasn't a matter of esthetics. This was a bet. ‘I lost my dollar,’ Novotny said, who had his money on Bill Nieder. ‘I think Wilt must have made about nine bucks that night. Wilt was never aloof, or a prima donna,’ Novotny remembered. ‘He was one of the gang.’"

Kansas U 1957 Track Team
1957 KU Track & Field (Al Oerter to Wilt's Right)

Al Oerter maintained that not all of the stories about he and Wilt were true. He said, “There have been some things written that I used to arm wrestle Wilt Chamberlain when we were at KU. That never happened. Can you imagine where my hand would come next to Wilt’s if we both had our elbows on the table? But I got to know Wilt. He was actually a really good track athlete.” Al remembered one time in the locker room, which was under the stadium, a man came to see Wilt. Al overheard the man offer Wilt a one-third stake in the Harlem Globetrotters, take it or leave it. After he left, Wilt told Al it was Abe Saperstein, the owner of the Globetrotters. Wilt said he wasn’t interested at the moment.

Wilt’s last home KU basketball game was played on February 28, 1958, after asking for it to be rescheduled to a Friday night so he could compete in the Big 8 Indoor Track and Field Championships the following afternoon. After a one-point overtime win versus Oklahoma and scoring the final 14 points of the game, Wilt arrived at the Big 8 meet in Kansas City the next day and took a few practice high jumps. While still wearing his warm up jacket and a cap, he leaped 6’6.75”, setting a new Kansas record and first place in the event.

Wilt and Al at 1958 Big 8 Conference Championship Meet
Wilt & Al, Big 8 Conference Championship, 1958
Wilt wins his third Big 8 High Jump title
Wilt wins his third Big 8 High Jump title

In his KU track and field career, Wilt ran a sub 11-second 100-yard dash, competed in the half-mile and threw the shot 56 feet. Despite his success with sprinting and throwing, his best events were the jumping competitions. He triple jumped in excess of 50 feet and won the Big 8 Conference high jumping event three years in a row, while wearing his signature pork pie hat.

Chamberlain would leave Kansas after the 1958 spring semester to join Saperstein’s team for one year. At the time, NBA rules prohibited him from joining the league until his class had graduated college. In October, 1959, Wilt made his professional NBA debut with the Philadelphia Warriors, beginning a superlative 15-season Hall of Fame career. He would change the way basketball was played, forever.

Bill Nieder was raised in Lawrence, Kansas, but, ironically, born in Hempstead, New York, a few miles from where Al Oerter grew up. The area was originally named the Hempstead Plains for its miles and miles of rolling Long Island grasslands suitable for agriculture on a large scale. In early America, it was one of the few natural prairies east of the Allegheny Mountains.

In 1960, Bill finished fourth in the shot put at the U.S. Olympic Trials, hindered by a heavily taped, injured leg, and was selected as an alternate. Earlier in the year, he had set three world records and looked to be the favorite in the event. At the games in Rome, Dave Davis, who was on the U.S. team, injured his wrist before the event and Nieder was moved up to take his spot. Bill won the gold medal in the shot put that day and set a new Olympic record, matching his former Kansas teammate, Al Oerter, who won his second career gold in the discus and also set a new Olympic standard. Bill Nieder named Al, “The finest competitor that had ever been in track and field.”

Bill Nieder at Kansas with the Shot
Bill Nieder at Kansas with the Shot
Al Oerter at Kansas after a throw
Al Oerter at Kansas after a throw indoors

As a KU freshman, Al Oerter remembered working out during the winter in a freezing cold, spartan environment under the football stadium that the throwers had named “Pneumonia Downs.” This was far from the chrome palaces today’s athletes are accustomed to, with dirt floors, low hanging stanchions and exposed infrastructure. Al said, "Bill Nieder was an upperclassman, and he was under there banging away with the shot at those concrete abutments and lifting as hard as he possibly could with the spare equipment that we had. Here was a guy that was putting in energy and that was inspiring because he had some great capability. Parry O'Brien, the Olympian, was just about to throw 60 feet for a world record and Bill was going to beat him to it if he could. It was good to see that kind of energy flowing. It was a great environment to be in, despite the dirt floors, broken light bulbs and lifting equipment that was well below what was required.”

Bill Nieder eventually went on to work for the 3M Company, where he was instrumental in the development of artificial athletic turf. He oversaw the installation of the first Tartan track surface in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City, for the 1968 games. On May 8, 2011, Nieder helped to subdue a violent passenger trying to break into the cockpit on American Airlines Flight 1561, headed to San Francisco. He was 77 years old at the time.

There is so much more to be said about these big men from the Plains. They were a trio of diverse, extraordinary talents, all brought together by their shared love of the track and the field. In the end, they were teammates; the first in so many of their achievements, and the last of their kind. We shall not see their likes again. “Rock Chalk JayHawk Go KU.”

© 2020 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved

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