(This is Part II of the first non-baseball post in the history of the Dazzy Vance Chronicles.)
By Glen Sparks
You probably know the picture. It is black-and-white, more than 50 years old, and set in a musty locker room. Wilt Chamberlain, center for the Philadelphia Warriors, slender, muscular, not a bit of fat on his 7-foot-1-inch frame, holds up a piece of paper that reads “100.” A rubber band hangs on one wrist. His long legs look sharply bent. He is smiling, and, incredibly, he still looks fresh. Like he could do it again. Like he could do something mythic one more time. Wilt Chamberlain had just enjoyed that sort of game, and he enjoyed just that sort of NBA career.
The Warriors drafted Chamberlain in 1959. He averaged 37.6 points and 27.0 rebounds a game as a rookie. He followed that with an even greater sophomore campaign (38.4 points and 27.2 rebounds). He set the single-season scoring mark both times.
One Night in Hershey
The Big Dipper put up many big nights with the Warriors. He didn’t put up any night bigger, though, or more magical, than the one March 2, 1962, on a cold, rainy night in Hershey, Pa., with the aroma of milk chocolate in the air. Wilt dunked and finger rolled his way to probably the greatest single athletic performance in history. No video footage exists of the game, only some scratchy audio. A couple of photographers snapped a few decent pictures.
A bit more than 4,100 fans looked on as Wilt Chamberlain hit the century mark. (Teams normally played a few games each season at nearby arenas as a way to boost interest. The Hershey arena was about half full that extraordinary night.)
Wilt remains the only NBA player to score 100 points in one game. Of course, he broke his own record (78 points) when he did it. Wilt made 36 shots and went 28-32 from the foul line as the Warriors beat the New York Knicks 169-147. (The Lakers’ Kobe Bryant owns the non-Wilt scoring record, 81.) The 2003 book Wilt, 1962 by Gary Pomerantz offers a great account of the action. There was no flow to the game. The Knicks, of course, didn’t want Wilt to hit 100. They did everything short of felony assault to keep it from happening. (There had been so much talk during the season that Wilt would finally hit triple digits. The Celtics’ Bill Russell said, “Chamberlain has the size, strength and stamina to score 100 points in one night.” In the three games leading up to Hershey, Chamberlain tallied 67, 65 and 61 points.)
Early on, the Knicks started triple-teaming Wilt. When that didn’t work, they quadruple-teamed him. Knicks Coach Eddie Donovan ordered his team to foul as a way to keep the ball from Wilt. The Warriors, in turn, committed fouls in order to get back the ball. All told, the teams shot 76 free throws in the game.
“86, 88, 90…”
Wilt needed 31 points in the fourth quarter to hit 100. The Knicks began milking the shot clock. The Warriors kept passing up shots. They kept feeding their big man the ball. Warriors defensive specialist Al Attles said, “We wanted Wilt to get the record because we all liked him.” Public address announcer Dave Zinkoff shouted Wilt’s point totals to the crowd after each basket. “77! … 79!” … “81!”
Point 96 came on a fade away, No. 98 was on a dunk. Amazingly, we don’t know about the 100th point. We do know it came with 46 seconds left. Was it a lay-up, though, or a dunk? Accounts vary.
Fans ran onto the court. They wanted a piece of the 100-point man. Someone stole the 100-point ball, supposedly. But, it didn’t matter. Undoubtedly tired, Wilt didn’t feel the need score any more. He told a reporter later, “100 sounded better than 102.”
The big story hit the headlines. Celtic Coach Red Auerbach, not always a gracious man, kept to form. “He’s playing against nobodies,” Auerbach grumbled, probably crunching on a sour cigar as he said that.
Russell, Wilt’s frequent nemesis, reportedly smiled and said, “The Big Fella finally did it.”
Wilt averaged 50.4 points a game that season. His team lost to Russell and the Celtics in the conference finals. The next season, the Warriors left Philly for San Francisco. Wilt averaged a league-leading 44.8 points a game in 1962-63. The NBA responded by widening the lane. Chamberlain responded by averaging a league-leading 36.9 points a game in 1963-64.
The Warriors, cash short, traded Wilt to the Philadelphia 76ers midway through the 1964-65 season for three players and $150,000. Finally surrounded by stars such as Billy Cunningham and Hal Greer, Wilt concentrated on defense and won his first NBA championship in 1966-67. He played one more season in Philly and left for L.A. in 1968. His 1971-72 Laker team, with Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Elgin Baylor, won a record 33 games straight, went 69-13 and beat the Knicks for the championship. One year later, Wilt retired from the NBA.
He went on to make a few movies and a bunch of commercials. He played beach volleyball, wrote books, talked about making an NBA comeback and lived in an eccentric house in the Hollywood Hills.
Wilt Chamberlain died Oct. 12, 1999, at age 63, of heart problems. He left a complicated legacy for some fans. Critics say he piled up stats instead of rings. Wilt fans point out that no one did as much on a basketball court as the Big Dipper did. He was both the immovable object and the unstoppable force. “He scored 100 points, he pulled down 55 rebounds, he scored at least 50 points in a game 118 times …” The NBA record book is really sort of the NBA/Wilt Chamberlain record book; he holds 71 records. He remains, nearly 15 years after his untimely death, larger than life.