“Imagine,” Sports Illustrated mused, “Wilt Chamberlain scoring his NBA record 100 points today, in the Twitter age.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the breathless, contemporaneous tweets from Philadelphia Warriors beat writers as the total mounts. Instant photos from their iPhones. Trending hashtags like #bigdipper and #thestilt. Appearances later in the week on Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel.
But on March 2, 1962, there was no television coverage of the Knicks-Warriors game in Hershey, Pa., and hence, no sepia-toned video footage to replay today. Just 4,124 fans were in attendance. Legendary Philadelphia public relations man Harvey Pollack scrawled “100” on a piece of paper and had Chamberlain hold it up for the still photographer who made the iconic image that survives.
When Jeremy Lin put up 38 against the Lakers last month, he became the talk of the nation. His image graced consecutive SI covers. Wilt’s 100-point game, an individual scoring record that still stands half a century later, got four sentences in the magazine’s “For the Record” column.
Lin was the talk of ESPN. There was no such thing as a 24-hour sports television network in Wilt’s day.
“When you take on history, nothing is more important than context,” explained Gary Pomerantz, author of WILT, 1962. “So when we consider the NBA in 1962, we have to put away our notions of today’s game, with the glamor and the glitz and the exploding lights, and see it for what it was.
“At that time, it was hardly even a national basketball association. There were only nine teams, only one west of St. Louis, and that was the Los Angeles Lakers, who had moved out there a year earlier. So it was a league in search of itself. The old joke was that NBA crowds were so small that before the game, the P.A. announcers would announce the players in the starting lineup and then they would introduce each fan: ‘There’s Paul from Hershey and Sam from Harrisburg!'”
Wilt today would be a phenomenon celebrated in a never-ending stream of video highlights the way Shaquille O’Neal was years later — as Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
“He is aesthetically and athletically just superior to everyone else out there,” Pomerantz said. “He’s 25 years old and he’s 7-foot-1 and 260 pounds and he’s lean. He’s got a massive back that slopes down to a 31-inch waist and he’s running the floor like a train. I interviewed a lot of guys who played against him in that early stage in his career and they spoke of him with this hushed reverence. It was almost as if, I would imagine, you were to interview the native Americans out on the plains about the first sighting of the locomotive. He was that unprecedented.”
Chamberlain had as many haters as admirers in those days. “Nobody roots for Goliath,” he often said. Critics pointed out that for all the scoring, his two NBA championships rings paled in comparison to rival Bill Russell’s eleven.
“I think some of it is a discrimination, and by that I don’t refer entirely to race,” Pomerantz said. “I’m referring to his height. If you go back and read what the leading lights of the sports media were writing at that time, they were calling him a pituitary goon and a circus freak. He enters a feet-on-the-floor game and transforms it. He takes it vertical above the rim and makes it his.
“In that 100-point game, there’s one foot dragging in the old days, and that’s with the set shooters and so forth who are still in the game, and one foot lunging into the modern day. That’s a more athletically luminous type of game, faster and higher, and that foot was Wilt’s.
“He was always the favorite. You don’t look at him and think underdog. He was bigger, stronger and faster than everyone. It’s kind of like those Rocky movies. Not many people are rooting for Apollo Creed. So this was Wilt’s cross to bear. He and Russell had some fantastic battles. In fact, this season ended for Wilt all too typically — in Game 7 of the NBA conference finals losing to Russell on a controversial shot that Sam Jones made with just a few seconds to play.
“In this year when Wilt averages 50 points a game and throws down the 100-point thunderbolt in Hershey, Russell was named the MVP. Think about that.”
Chamberlain’s numbers from that 1961-62 season are inconceivable today. He averaged 48.5 minutes a game. NBA games are 48 minutes long. The Warriors played ten overtime contests that year. In addition to his 50.4 points per game on 50.6 percent shooting, he averaged 25.7 rebounds a game. Of the top ten single-game scoring totals in NBA history, Chamberlain authored six.
The box score from Hershey shows he made 36 of 63 shots from the floor in the Warriors’ 169-147 victory. For a 51 percent career free-throw shooter, his most amazing accomplishment was hitting 28 of 32 foul shots.
“That’s the real miracle of Hershey, of course,” Pomerantz said. “Wilt was a terrible free throw shooter. He was kind of the pre-modern day Shaq. And years later, when there was talk that he was going to fight Muhammad Ali, Wilt’s father pulled him aside and said, ‘Wilt, don’t you think you might be a little better served practicing free throws?’
“But this was the year he shot them underhanded. So it’s his least athletic-looking move on the court, where he’s putting the ball between his legs, he’s dipping down low, his knees flare out wide. He kind of looks like an adult trying to sit in a kindergartner’s chair. But it worked. Eighty-seven percent, and he never replicated that, unless it was in his dreams.”
Today’s sports world would have reverberated for weeks. Fifty years ago, basketball fans got a couple of lines in the paper the next morning, maybe a box score if they were lucky. Chamberlain, who died in 1999 at age 63, drove Knicks forward Willie Naulls back to New York after the game and celebrated in his Harlem nightclub, Big Wilt’s Smalls Paradise.
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