As historic and revolutionary as the achievement was, it remains shrouded in myth.
At the heart of the book is the self-made Chamberlain, a romantic cosmopolitan who owned a nightclub in Harlem and shrugged off segregation with a bebop cool but harbored every slight deep in his psyche.
We’ve all read so many stories about Davids, the heroic underdogs. I was fascinated with this story about a genuine sports Goliath, a black goliath in 1962 America.. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game is one of the most famous – and famously obscure – achievements in American sports history. It is a record that has never been approached. So many people have heard of it, yet hardly anyone knows anything about it. Over the decades, his 100-point night went fully unexplored and slipped from sight. It became like a sunken galleon, waiting to be recovered.
There’s a mythical quality to that game, in part because almost no one was there to see it. The Hershey Sports Arena was half empty: only 4,124 fans showed up, not including the local kids who snuck in. The game was not televised. With five games left in a lost season for the Knicks, the New York sportswriters didn’t care enough about the team to come to the game. Of course, the legendary sports editor of The New York Herald Tribune, Stanley Woodward, didn’t think much of basketball, anyway. He didn’t consider it a manly sport. Woodward said, “I have strong reservations about the masculinity of any man who plays the game in short pants.”
And look what those New York sportswriters missed?
It’s almost too fantastic to believe, isn’t it? But when it happened in March 1962 few were surprised. Bill Russell heard about it and said, “The Big Fella finally did it.” Wilt was that dominant. Remember, he averaged 50 points per game that season.
The final score in Hershey was Philadelphia 169, New York 147. Chamberlain’s line score reads like the work of a comic book superhero: 36 baskets in 63 attempts, plus 28 free throws. That’s one hundred points. It was basketball’s equivalent of the steel-driving folk hero, John Henry, a hammer in his hand, out-pounding the steam drill.
Chamberlain was unstoppable: he scored on a variety of tap-ins, so-called “Dipper dunks,” bank shots and fall-aways. He was a notoriously dreadful free throw shooter but that night in Hershey he made 28 of 32. Of course, the flimsy rims helped.
It’s true the New York Knicks were a weak opponent, but it is also true that the Knicks in Hershey had three NBA all-stars in the starting lineup plus a young center who had won an Olympic gold medal a year and a half earlier.
The Knicks tried everything to stop Wilt. They elbowed, jabbed and bumped him. They surrounded him with four players. New York center Darrall Imhoff even demonstrated for me, some 40 years later, how he had placed the point of his elbow between Wilt’s shoulder blades. Now even I can attest – that hurts.
Wilt was already a luminous figure, a celebrity of the highest order. He made big money, $75,000 a year. He loved his game, and he loved himself. He was only 25 years old. He co-owned a Harlem nightclub where Redd Foxx and Etta James and Cannonball Adderly performed, and he moved through it like he owned all of Harlem, even all of Manhattan. Wilt had fancy cars and, of course, his women. He also had a fancy nickname – “the Big Dipper.” Never call him “Wilt the Stilt.” He hated that because it reminded him of a crane standing in a pool of water.
He was remarkable, enigmatic, the Babe Ruth of his sport. But his white teammates on the Philadelphia Warriors hardly knew him. Remember, this was 1962, the middle of Kennedy’s Camelot, and still a very segregated era. His teammates saw him only at games and practices, in locker rooms and airports.
But they heard him tell his Globetrotters stories and saw him bluff his way through card games on airplanes. They didn’t know what to make of the Dipper. On the court, they simply passed him the ball.
Chamberlain was 7-foot-1, 265 pounds, perfectly proportioned then, not yet muscled up on weights. The Syracuse veteran Dolph Schayes called him “the most perfect instrument ever made by God to play basketball,” and Schayes was right. The Dipper was an aesthetically gorgeous athlete. He had been a track and field star in college, and now he was a basketball player of unprecedented skills. If you judge athleticism purely as a combination of size, speed, agility and strength then Wilt Chamberlain might have been the greatest pure athlete of the 20th century.
The 100-point game was played on March 2, 1962, only ten days after John Glenn blasted into orbit. My narrative became a period piece. Spring 1962 was a compelling time, 20 months before President Kennedy was murdered, still more the texture and feel of the Fifties, the calm before the storm.
They had such interesting and diverse backgrounds. Collectively, they offered a snapshot of America just beyond mid-century.
On one side, you had a Greenwich Village dandy in silver cufflinks – Frank McGuire – coaching the Philadelphia Warriors while, on the other side, you had a former marine, Richie Guerin, starring at guard for the Knicks and getting increasingly furious – nearly frothing at the mouth — as Wilt’s point total soared into the 80s. You also had Wilt’s rookie teammate, Tom Meschery, a battler known as the Mad Russian. Meschery was a bohemian, and spoke Russian and French fluently. His family tree included the author Leo Tolstoy; Meschery’s own father had fought against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution.
You also had the lovable skinflint Warriors owner, Eddie Gottlieb, a gnomish man, and his sidekick, p.a. announcer Dave Zinkoff. The Zink, as he was called, gave away free salamis and cigars to fans at halftime. Gotty and the Zink: what a pair! As Chamberlain scored, the Zink announced, “Dipper Dunk! Chaaaaaaim-berrr-lun!!”
And remember, this game was played not in Philadelphia or Detroit or St. Louis. It was played in Hershey, up the street from Milton Hershey’s famous chocolate factory. It was a curiosity – here you had a black athlete tearing up what was still largely a white man’s sport in a game played amidst Pennsylvania Dutch country.
When Chamberlain scored the basket to reach 100 points, a swarm of local kids – mostly the sons of chocolate factory workers — swept onto the court to congratulate him. A 14-year old boy shook Wilt’s hand. Then the boy did a Huck Finn thing — he grabbed the basketball and ran. There were no security guards in those days. The boy outran two overweight constables. He raced outside of the Hershey Sports Arena and into the night. He ran through the amusement park, past the bumper cars and the Ferris wheel, and home to 50 West Chocolate Avenue.
It’s quite a revealing story, actually. The boy played with the ball for years, in back alleys, and then put it in his closet and went on with his life. There was no sports memorabilia market in those days. But when Wilt died of a heart attack at age 63 in 1999, some thirty-seven years later, the kid – a 51-year old kid, at that point – auctioned the ball in New York.
It sold for more than $550,000. Very quickly, though, a controversy broke out. Someone said it wasn’t the 100-point ball, but a replacement ball from that famous game.
These things are never simple, are they?
None. Wilt Chamberlain’s hundred-point night stands like a statistical Everest over the landscape of professional sports in America.
In the NBA no one else has scored 90 points in a game or even 85. Kobe Bryant’s 81 points in a 2006 game against last-place Toronto rates as the second highest single-game total in an NBA game. But Bryant’s performance, which was available for purchase online on DVD immediatley after the game, still falls short – 19 points – and it carries none of the mythology of Chamberlain’s night in Hershey.
Michael Jordan never got higher than 69, and he needed overtime to get that.
Nothing can touch the Dipper’s 100, not in any other professional team sport. Baseball allows for moments of greatness but not a sustained effort that builds mountainous numbers: certainly no batter will ever hit twelve home runs in a game and no pitcher will record 40 strikeouts.
Once, in 1965, Gayle Sayers of the Chicago Bears rushed for four touchdowns, caught a touchdown pass and returned a punt 85 yards for another touchdown. He touched the ball just sixteen times that day and scored six touchdowns and produced 336 all-purpose yards. Bears owner George Halas called it the greatest individual effort he ever saw on a football field. Yet Sayers’ performance had none of the unimaginable aspects of Chamberlain’s in Hershey. In fact, Sayers’ all-purpose yardage total has been exceeded several times and other players have scored six touchdowns in a game.
Here’s another way to look at Chamberlain’s dominance: he averaged a record 50.4 points per game during that 1961-62 season. The second best in history, Michael Jordan’s 37.1 point average in 1986-87, would need to be pumped up by thirty-six percent to equal Wilt’s 50.4.
By comparison, to rise thirty-six percent above Ted Williams’ revered .406 batting average in 1941, a batter would need to hit .552.
You had, at that time, the first generation of black superstars lifting the NBA from obscurity into a national phenomenon. Wilt Chamberlain was at the center of that breakthrough. He saved the league, really. He made it interesting. Fans wanted to see the guy who scored 100 points in a game, and averaged 50 points per night.
The 100-point game in Hershey was a revolutionary act, if not by intention then by its implications. It was like a flare shot into the sky, signaling that the game had changed both in the way it was played and by the men who would play it.
It was a hyperbolic announcement of the ascendancy of the black superstar in the NBA. There was a quota in the league in those days limiting the number of black players to three or so per team. This quota wasn’t written on paper. It was a tacit understanding that was systemic in this country. White owners believed white fans wouldn’t come to games if their team had too many black players, whatever “too many” meant.
Chamberlain’s 100-point game in Hershey symbolically blew that quota to smithereens.
The night in Hershey gave Wilt an imprimatur to continue being who he was. He became the most striking example of basketball’s new era of self-expression and egotism. He took the pro game above the rim – and made it his.
Wilt became famous in 1968 for endorsing the Republican Richard Nixon for president; for awhile he called himself America’s tallest Republican, but he later backed off, saying he felt exploited by the Nixon campaign. In the early Sixties Wilt was, like most athletes at that time, essentially apolitical and uninvolved.
He once said, “I’m no Jackie Robinson. Some persons are meant to be that way . . . others aren’t.” Yet his seeming shrug in public about matters of race in the early Sixties stood in stark contrast to the way he handled matters in his own life. He took race-based impediments to his own self-definition and crushed them in his fist. Instead of complaining, he imposed his own impressive will. He sometimes dated white women, if discreetly. He drove his Cadillac at high speeds and made more money than anyone else in the NBA.
By averaging 50 points per game he proved his physical superiority night after night. He made a mockery of the league and its racial quotas and the whole idea that white players were the best players in the world.
Wilt Chamberlain fought his own freedom struggle simply by being – aggressively, flagrantly, unapologetically – the Dipper.
Absolutely. During my research, the question became not “How does a man score 100 points in an NBA game?” but more essentially, “Why does he do it?” Let’s face it, Wilt had an ego as large as he. In the short-term memory, his legacy is defined by two numbers: 100 and 20,000. The later stems from his mythmaker’s boast to have slept with 20,000 women, a boast he came to regret. The first, of course, relates to the 100-point game.
So if you ask, “Why did Wilt Chamberlain score 100 points?” the answer is because he could. He liked the idea of bending an entire sport to his will.