Ed. note: For the 50th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game, author Gary M. Pomerantz adapted a speech he gave in Hershey, Pa., in 2005. His book, "WILT, 1962," can be purchased here.
In the early 1960's, Wilt Chamberlain said he was attacked by a mountain lion.
He told his good friend Cal Ramsey that he was alone in the country when the mountain lion leaped from rocks onto him.
Wilt said, "I killed him with my bare hands."
Ramsey expressed his doubts. To prove his point, Wilt pulled back his shirt to reveal several long scars on his shoulder, which Ramsey admitted looked like claw marks.
Was the story true? Who knew with Wilt?
In a hotel lobby once, his Philadelphia Warriors' teammates crowded around, Wilt told another story. It was about his first professional team, the Harlem Globetrotters, and their visit to Russia in 1960. Wilt said the Politburo invited the team to dinner. There, he said, the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, proposed toasts, and everyone at the table drank shots of vodka.
In Wilt's telling, Khrushchev said, "Nobody leaves until only one man is sitting up straight!"
One by one, the Globetrotters fell away, resting their heads atop the table, defeated by vodka. The Politburo members gave up, too. The toasts continued.
Chamberlain's head hurt. His temples throbbed. Rarely did he drink alcohol, but he said didn't want to disappoint the Kremlin.
Now, Wilt said, it was the next day, and only two men were upright -- Wilt and Nikita Khrushchev.
In every Wilt story, he was the superhero, triumphant.
In this one, he won the Cold War as surely as he'd killed that mountain lion.
Wilt suffered, and enjoyed, a Goliath complex. He was 7-foot-1, 260 pounds with an obsessive need to prove he was even greater than that.
He died in 1999 from a heart attack at 63 in his Bel Air mansion, and the short-hand summary to his life can be found in two numbers, one real and one the product of his myth-making imagination.
Those two numbers are 100 and 20,000.
The first number comes from basketball. It represents that astonishing night 50 years ago this Friday -- March 2, 1962 -- when he scored 100 points in the Philadelphia Warriors' 169-147 victory over the New York Knicks in an NBA game at Hershey, Pa. His performance looms as the statistical Everest of sports, and the only single-triple in NBA history.
The other number concerns his sexual prowess. As a 25-year-old physical phenomenon intent on being uniquely larger-than-life, Chamberlain scored those 100 points one night and averaged a still-standing record of 50 points per game during that 1961-1962 NBA season. The same need moved him 30 years later to boast in a book that he had slept with 20,000 women. Even his long-time friend and former lover, Lynda Huey, didn’t buy that. Wilt backed off a touch and told her, "What's a zero between friends? Huey told me, "He just wanted to see if people would believe something ridiculous and they did." Huey added, "I believe the 2,000 number. That makes sense."
There's never been anyone like him. He hated the nickname "Wilt the Stilt" because it reminded him of a big crane standing in a pool of water. He preferred "the Big Dipper," more luminous, more other-worldly.
If you define athleticism as a combination of size, speed, strength and agility, the young Dipper, a decathlete and basketball star who at full speed covered nearly eight feet of hardwood with each elongated stride, might have been the greatest pure athlete of the 20th century, there with Jim Thorpe, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown.
Wilt's 100-point game in Hershey stands among the most famous achievements in sports history. But during my research for WILT, 1962, I discovered that hardly anyone really knew anything about it.
Its mystique was born of its isolation. Few saw the game. It was not televised. No New York sportswriters showed up with the Knicks in last place and the NBA regular season just five games from completion. There were only 4,124 paying customers at the Hershey Sports Arena that night, and even that number might have been inflated. Eddie Gottlieb, the Warriors lovable owner, sometimes embellished his crowd counts. Though 4,124 became the official crowd total in Hershey, it did not include a handful of local Hershey boys who snuck into the arena.
At halftime, the p.a. announcer Dave Zinkoff, in a fan give-away, handed out New Phillies Cheroots cigars and Formost salamis. And he called out on the p.a. (more than once) during the game, "Diii-pppeer Duuunk, Chaaaam-ber-laaaiinn!!!" When Wilt scored on a Dipper Dunk with 46 seconds remaining to reach 100, the kids of Hershey rushed out to the court to meet the conquering hero, much as the French once rushed out to the field to greet the arriving Lindbergh.
It was all quite a show. The "100" stayed in people's minds. But the event itself soon was forgotten.
Decades later, Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game seemed like a sunken galleon, waiting to be recovered.
To understand the meaning and significance of what happened that long-ago night in Hershey, we must first understand the era, the league and the man.
In spring 1962, John Kennedy and Wilt's good friend -- Nikita Khrushchev --- were locked in a Cold War faceoff over the issue of nuclear testing. Only ten days before Wilt's big night, John Glenn blasted into space and returned home with a classic line: "I don't know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets." In Philadelphia, 400 African-American ministers led their congregations in a boycott against the Tasty Baking Company, Sunoco and Gulf Oil until more black employees at those companies were hired to better jobs. The Freedom Rides rolled across the South, a region whose major athletic conferences had yet to desegregate. In the nation's capital, the Washington Redskins, the last NFL team to integrate, finally had signed their first black player, though he had not yet played.
The simmering racial tensions in the South would bubble to the surface later that fall. At Ole Miss, James Meredith had to be escorted by federal marshals armed with tear gas and guns to become that school's first black student. Rioting erupted and two people were left dead.
And don't mistake the NBA of that year for today's sleek league of glamour and glitz. It was perceived by many sportswriters as less than the college game. Some NBA players still smoked cigarettes, even at halftime; they washed their own uniforms in hotel room sinks. That season, Wilt's Philadelphia Warriors played one game in a high school gym in Indiana. The NBA tried to develop new fans by playing a number of games outside of big cities, in places with big arenas, such as Hershey.
It was still largely a white man's enclave. In 1962, two-thirds of the NBA's players were white. The league's black players were certain that a quota existed that limited their numbers. Such prejudice was systemic then in American life. In 1958, the St. Louis Hawks -- playing in the NBA's southernmost town -– became the last league champion with a roster entirely made up of white players.
Today, the NBA has 30 teams, but in 1961-62 it had only nine -- and just one (the Los Angeles Lakers) west of St. Louis.
Most of America's leading sports columnists in 1962, The New York Times' Red Smith and Shirley Povich of The Washington Post, among them, cared little for pro basketball. They preferred baseball, football, horse racing, boxing -- anything but the NBA. Stanley Woodward, the legendary sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune, said of basketball: "I have strong reservations, about the masculinity of any man who plays the game in short pants."
In 1962, the NBA had one foot stepping into the future, the other dragging in the past. Some of the old-style set shooters remained, using a one- or two-handed shot taken without their feet leaving the floor, a shooting style that dated to the game's origins in the late 1890s.
And then there was Wilt. Tall, fast, athletically gifted, he transformed the geometry of his sport. He took a feet-on-the-floor horizontal game above the rim, and made it his.
He was the Babe Ruth of his sport. As Ruth electrified baseball with the home run as the sport moved from the dead ball era to the live ball era during the 1920s, Chamberlain electrified pro basketball in the early 1960s with his scoring and Dipper Dunk.
Of course the two men -- The Babe and The Dipper -- shared other qualities as well. Both kept their eyes on pretty women in the grandstands. A married man, Ruth could be loud and coarse, once telling his teammates, "You should have seen this dame I was with last night. What a body! Not a blemish on it."
The bachelor Chamberlain was quieter and more careful about his liaisons in the winter of 1962.
"That blonde sitting underneath the basket," he whispered to a Philadelphia Warriors official sitting at the scorer's table during one game. The Dipper raised a brow and said, "Get her number for me."
In 1962, Chamberlain was a celebrity of the highest order. He earned $75,000 that year, a time when the average American worker made less than $5,000. He lived in a stylish apartment off Central Park in Manhattan, and commuted to games and practices in Philadelphia. He owned a racehorse named Spooky Cadet.
And he co-owned a historic nightclub in Harlem known as Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise. The nightclub on 7th Avenue and 135th was hopping, especially on Tuesday night with Twist dance contests. Redd Foxx performed there and so did Etta James. Wilt moved through his nightclub like he owned all of Harlem, maybe even all of New York.
His Philadelphia Warriors teammates didn't know what to make of him. They didn't seem him that often, only at games and practices and at airports on the road.
There were only three black players on the 1961-62 Philadelphia Warriors and eight white players. There was precious little social interaction across racial lines. On the road, the white players paired off as roommates, and Wilt's two black teammates -- Al Attles and Guy Rodgers -- roomed together. The Dipper got his own room.
On the court night after night in 1961-1962, he tore apart the NBA's best players.
The star rookie in the league that season was center Walt Bellamy of the expansion Chicago Packers. Bellamy, a 6-foot-10 jump shooter, averaged 30 points per game. He had a formal air about him and as he walked onto the court for the opening tipoff for his much-anticipated first NBA game against the Dipper, he extended his hand and said, "Hello, Mister Chamberlain, I'm Walter Bellamy."
Chamberlain extended his hand and said, "Hello, Walter. You won't get a shot off in the first half."
That night, Big Bells couldn't shoot. He couldn't breathe.
Because of The Dipper.
Chamberlain blocked Bellamy's first nine shots inside the free throw line. The rookie was shell-shocked when he returned for the second half. This time, Chamberlain extended his hand and said, as if to a child, "Okay, Walter, now you can play."
That night the Philadelphia Warriors easily defeated Chicago and Wilt Chamberlain outscored Walter Bellamy 51-14.
About the matter of race in America in 1962, few African-American athletes were outspoken. Jackie Robinson -- five years after his retirement from major league baseball -- remained a standard-bearer. Robinson participated in civil rights marches in Washington D.C., gave speeches about discrimination in public housing in Rhode Island. He appeared at NAACP rallies. Of course, Robinson worked for Chock Full 'o Nuts, a chain of coffee shops, and he had a supportive boss who effectively subsidized his work in race relations.
Wilt remained his own man. What he did in this regard, he typically did quietly. He sent children in Harlem to summer camps. He insisted that only black workers would be hired as contractors and sub-contractors at an apartment complex he was building in Los Angeles; he was ahead of the times in making that stipulation.
"I'm not crusading for anyone," Chamberlain said in 1960. "I'm no Jackie Robinson. Some people are meant to be that way ... others aren't."
His seeming shrug or passivity in public about matters of race in the early Sixties stood in stark contrast to the way he crushed in his fist any race-based impediments to his own self-definition.
He sometimes dated white women, if discreetly.
He drove his Cadillac convertible at high speeds.
He made more money than anyone else in the league.
By averaging 50 points per game in 1961-62, he proved his physical superiority and made a mockery of the league and its racial quotas and the notion that his white opponents were the best players in the world. Beneath the veneer of his seeming shrug, the Dipper fought his own freedom struggle simply by being -- aggressively, flagrantly and unapologetically -- the Dipper.
Wilt's performance in Hershey is the basketball equivalent of the steel-driving folk hero John Henry with a hammer in his hand, out-pounding the steam drill.
Over the years, many -- including some of the New York Knicks -- have tried to diminish the significance of this game.
True, the Knicks were a last-place team. But they had three all-stars in the starting lineup -- Richie Guerin, Willie Naulls and Johnny Green -- plus a young center, Darrall Imhoff, who had won an NCAA title at Berkeley, and a gold medal as a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team in Rome.
It's been said the Knicks didn't really care or try. Ridiculous. In fact, Guerin, the Knicks' all-star guard, was in a red-faced fury during the fourth quarter as Wilt's point total rose into the 80s and 90s. Guerin thought the Warriors, and Chamberlain, were breaking an honor code. He thought Wilt was rubbing it in. Guerin was a fine player, and proud. He hated what was happening in Hershey and couldn't wait for the game to end.
It's been said that most of Wilt's baskets were dunks -- that's also untrue.
That night in Hershey, Wilt converted 36 of 63 shots from the floor on an array of fall-away bank shots, jump shots, put-backs, and some Dipper dunks. The Knicks had two 6-foot-10 centers, but one (Phil Jordon) didn't play, and the other, Imhoff, fouled out in the fourth quarter after having played just 20 minutes. That meant that the Dipper had a five-inch and 50-pound advantage over the next biggest Knick for 28 minutes that night. In the final minutes, when the game's natural rhythms broke down, the Knicks surrounded Wilt with three and four players, and still couldn't keep him from 100.
The real miracle of Hershey was that Chamberlain made 28 of 32 free throws. He was a notoriously awful free throw shooter (51 percent for his career). The Knicks later complained the rims in Hershey were flimsy and that the flimsiness helped Wilt make 87 percent of his free throws that night. About the flimsiness, the Knicks were right: I learned that when the circus came to Hershey, the clowns brought their red varnished springboards and local kids borrowed them during off hours and used them to spring through the air toward these same baskets -- which were set off to the side of the arena -- to slam dunk, as if they were little Wilt Chamberlains. The boys hung onto the rims before falling cat-like to the floor. This would explain how those rims became so flimsy.
When Chamberlain scored the basket to reach 100 points with 46 seconds to play, the young fans sweeping onto the court to congratulate him, 14-year-old Kerry Ryman was among the first to reach him.
Ryman was small. He rose to the level of the Dipper's thigh.
He looked up, up, up at the great man – and then extended his hand. Chamberlain shook it. Ryman saw referee Willie Smith throw the ball to Wilt. He saw him bounce it once.
Then young Ryman committed an impulsive act, the sort of thing Huck Finn might have done.
He grabbed the ball, and ran with it. He zig-zagged between fans across the court and bounded up the steps of the arena. Ryman had snuck into the arena so many times -- including on this night -- and so he knew just where to go.
He knew that two local constables were chasing him. They wouldn't catch him.
Ryman ran out into the night, through the amusement park, passing the Skooter's bumper cars and the old Ferris Wheel. He ran up a hill, and then to his house at 50 West Chocolate Avenue.
The constables were out of shape. They gave up the chase. They knew it was Kerry Ryman, anyway.
It seems that Chamberlain didn't want the ball back. Ryman played with it in the gym, and on the macadam back alleys of Hershey, for weeks, months, years.
The printed words rubbed off the ball.
The ball itself turned raw.
Then Ryman put it in his closet and went on with his life.
When Wilt died 37 years later Ryman and a friend sold the ball at a New York sports memorabilia auction house.
The ball sold in auction for $551,000. Among sports memorabilia items, only a rare 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card and a Mark McGwire record-breaking home run ball had ever sold for more.
But a controversy broke out. Several officials from the old Philadelphia Warriors, and a former Warrior player, claimed that Ryman's ball was not the ball Wilt used to score the 100-point basket. They said Ryman must've stolen a replacement ball used after the 100-point ball was removed from the game and given to Wilt, and placed by a Warriors' ball boy in Wilt's bag in the locker room.
The New York auction house suspended the sale, pending further study. It held another auction months later, recounting the controversy, stating its belief that Ryman's ball was the actual 100-point ball. This time, though, the ball sold for $67,791.
Or, put another way, it sold for nearly $484,000 less than the first time
These things are never simple.
Then again, it only adds to the mythology of Wilt's 100-point game.
Wilt was complex. There was much about him -- a softer side of Goliath -- that people didn't know.
In 1997, the NBA honored its 50 greatest players from the first half century of the league. Both Chamberlain and a teammate from the 100-point game -- Paul Arizin -- were named to the all-time team.
At the time, Arizin's 16-year old granddaughter, Stephanie, was dying from an inoperable brain tumor. Chamberlain had learned of her condition. He befriended her. They exchanged letters and phone calls over the months.
Arizin brought Stephanie, in a wheelchair, to the NBA All-Star game in Cleveland that year when the league held a ceremony to honor its all-time greatest players.
There, Chamberlain embraced Stephanie, and pushed her wheelchair through the room, helping her to obtain autographs of all of the stars.
She died months later. But that night in Cleveland, Paul Arizin became emotional as he said to the Dipper, "Wilt, I'm in your debt. I owe you."
As members of the Philadelphia Warriors decades earlier, Arizin had never had a meaningful conversation in three years with Chamberlain. They were separated by age, race, social habits. Wilt was hard to know.
What Paul Arizin felt, but struggled to say to the Dipper, was that only now, 35 years after Hershey, did it feel like they truly were teammates.
Gary M. Pomerantz is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Communication at Stanford University and the author of WILT, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era (Three Rivers Press, 2006). This story is adapted from a speech he delivered in Hershey, Pa. in 2005.
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