A Wilt Chamberlain documentary used artificial intelligence to recreate his voice. The family is (mostly) thrilled to hear from him again.

Olin Chamberlain called his uncle during the NBA Playoffs in the early 1990s, when Michael Jordan was on his way to another championship. Chamberlain, then a teenage basketball player in Los Angeles, couldn’t call MJ, but he could get Wilt on the horn.

Except the phone line was busy over and over again.

“I finally got him,” said Chamberlain, one of Wilt’s nephews. “I said ‘Come on, Uncle Dip. I know you’re better than this. You’ve got a call waiting.’ He said ‘Hey, if you weren’t the first person to call, we weren’t meant to be talking.’ He was laid back. He didn’t even have call waiting. He was living his own life.”

To the world, Chamberlain was the 100-point scorer who grew up in West Philadelphia and changed the game of basketball. To his family he was “Uncle Dippy” who had a voice as cool as his playing.

And now they can hear Chamberlain – who died in 1999 – again after a documentary used artificial intelligence to recreate their uncle’s voice. The voice is used as narration for Goliath, a three-part series about Chamberlain’s life that begins streaming Friday on Paramount+ and airs Sunday night on Showtime.

“He kind of had a deep but laid-back voice,” Olin Chamberlain said. “Hi how are you? A relaxed voice. He didn’t seem pressured to us at all and lived his life the way he wanted to live his life. He didn’t allow others to dictate how he should live his life.”

The documentary includes interviews with Chamberlain’s family — including his remaining sisters Selena Gross and Barbara Lewis — and basketball Hall of Famers from Sonny Hill to Pat Riley. Chamberlain’s former teammate Jerry West called The Big Dipper “one of the most misunderstood people I’ve ever seen.”

The film aims to allow audiences to better understand Chamberlain, who co-director Rob Ford said “has infinite layers.”

And there was no one better, the directors believed, to tell Chamberlain’s story than himself.

“We wanted his presence to be felt,” said Christopher Dillon, Ford’s co-director.

His words

An actor was hired to read passages from Chamberlain’s three autobiographies and statements he was quoted as saying in news articles. The filmmakers then used an artificial intelligence program to alter the actor’s tenor to match Chamberlain’s voice based on hours of footage collected over the years.

“The emotion and the timing of everything that’s spoken is done by a human,” Dillon said. “It’s done by an actor that we hired to embody Wilt and have emotions. What the AI ​​does is change the pitch and tone of that person’s voice so they can sound like Wilt.”

A similar method was used in a 2021 documentary about celebrity chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain, who died three years earlier. That decision came under scrutiny when Bourdain’s family said they had not signed off on the use of AI to read an email Bourdain wrote to a friend. Goliath executives said they made sure to get Chamberlain’s family’s approval.

“What we did was take Wilt’s own words that he wrote and we just have an actor voice them and then we turn it into Wilt’s voice,” Dillon said. “But we’re not putting words in Wilt’s mouth.”

Olin Chamberlain said that sounds good. LaMont Lewis, another nephew, said it “almost felt like he was there,” but he knew his uncle well enough to pick up on the nuances that AI missed, like the way Chamberlain sometimes stuttered when he got excited . Michelle Smith, one of Chamberlain’s nieces, said the voice sounds natural.

»READ MORE: 40 years ago, the 76ers tried to solve their backup center dilemma by bringing Wilt Chamberlain out of retirement

The documentary allowed them to hear from their uncle – the one who never seemed to miss a family party and even let Lewis borrow his new sports car – again. But not everyone in the family seemed eager to hear Wilt’s recreated voice.

“Am I eager? No. Why should I? He’s dead,” said Chamberlain’s sister, Selina Gross. “What’s the point? I am 88 years old and my brother would be 87. Why would I hear a dead person’s voice? I’m not into ghosts and stuff. I heard his voice when he was alive. We used to talk all the time, but he’s gone now. I don’t need to hear his voice. Why would I want to hear his voice?”

Gross’s daughter, Michelle Smith, said the artificial voice was so close to Chamberlain’s that she believes her mother didn’t realize it was fake. Gross did not think the use of artificial intelligence was offensive or disrespectful to her brother.

»READ MORE: A new documentary series follows the life of Philly basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain

“But what is the purpose of that,” she said. “I don’t believe it, and I’ve never heard of my relatives or anyone that I’m close to come back and say anything, and I don’t think I’d want to hear them. If they’re alive, is one thing. I haven’t had the opportunity to hear someone who was dead come back with their voice. I haven’t had that opportunity and I don’t think I’m interested in it at this point in my life.”

His story

The voice that discussed the merits of waiting on calls is the same voice that used to call Gross’s home in North Philadelphia and tell her children what name he used to reserve his room downtown at the Four Seasons.

“He had to stay in a hotel and have an assumed name because when he would visit us at the house, all the neighbors would see him,” Michelle Smith said. “They would ring the bell and want an autograph, and he would come outside and sign them. He was gracious that way. He came to see us, but everybody in the neighborhood wanted to see him, too.”

Chamberlain was the uncle who attended LaMont Lewis’ cross country meets, popped into Olin Chamberlain’s basketball games and spent time with Gross and her brother when they visited LA every summer.

Uncle Dippy was their uncle who happened to be 7-foot-1. The documentary – which “explores Chamberlain’s cultural impact, focusing on the areas of power, money, race, sex, politics and celebrity” – aims to show people that he was more than a basketball star.

“He’s so much more than just the basketball player and the guy who had a lot of relationships with women,” Ford said. “I think we’re going to unveil a lot of it. I think you’ll feel like you’re getting to know him as a person and what it was like for him as a human being to be this huge man, this iconic figure who was always the center of attention for better or for worse.”

Chamberlain’s sister, Barbara Lewis, invited the filmmakers to her home in Las Vegas, which Ford described as a shrine to Chamberlain. It was almost like she had been preparing her whole life for this project, Ford said. Lewis graduated from Overbrook with Chamberlain, who is 14 months older than Lewis and 14 months younger than Gross. The three oldest of 11 siblings were inseparable as children.

“She always wanted to have something like this to honor her brother,” said Lewis’ son, Lamont.

Ford said every room in Lewis’ home was filled with Chamberlain memorabilia — “It’s like there’s a Harlem Globetrotter room, a Kansas Jayhawk room, a Philadelphia Warriors room, a Lakers room,” he said – and she allowed them to use what they could. Find.

Ford and Dillon discovered photos of Chamberlain’s early days in West Philly, news clippings from throughout his career and old VHS tapes. It seemed like the only thing they couldn’t find was the tape from the 100-point game — “Because it doesn’t exist,” Dillon said — but they nearly collected the entire epic 1957 NCAA final against North Carolina.

Each box was like digging through treasure, perhaps none more important than the sheet of paper they found with Chamberlain’s writing on it. Before his death, Chamberlain outlined how he wanted his life to be portrayed in a film or documentary.

“It was so trippy,” Ford said. “Because we were already in full production mode and a lot of creative decisions had been made. But when we looked at it, I’d say 80 to 90% of what he had on that outline is represented in the film.”

The project is almost exactly as Chamberlain dreamed it would be. And they even found a way for him to tell his story.

“I want people to understand that he was in his own lane,” Olin Chamberlain. “Literally, if you’re talking about the Chamberlain sports car he built. He had no problem being alone. He didn’t need a group of people in himself. But he liked who he liked. He spent time together with those he wanted to spend time with. He spent time with other people who thought about other things than just basketball.”

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