A happy 50th to an astonishing 100
Fifty years ago tonight, Wilt Chamberlain missed 27 shots in a game against the New York Knicks.
What would the analysts on TNT or ESPN say if an NBA player were to miss 27 shots in a game this evening? They’d have a little fun with that one.
Of course, there was a little more to the story, because on that night, Wilt Chamberlain also made 36 shots, along with 28 free throws. That added up to a nice even 100 points as the Philadelphia Warriors defeated the Knicks, 169-147.
One hundred points! Against NBA competition! Teams today go weeks without scoring 100 points. Seven-game playoff series are routinely played with neither team breaking 100.
One hundred points! It is the iconic one-game feat of all iconic one-game feats in North American sport.
How different was the NBA in those days? For starters, the game was one of three home games the Warriors played that year in Hershey, Pa. Funky home sites were a fact of NBA life. I can attest to the fact that Philadelphia was still playing games in Hershey a decade later.
The scoring mentality was entirely different. The general theory was that a team needed to get up a minimum of 100 shots to have a chance of winning any given game. The Warriors led the league that season with an average of 125 points a game. Three other teams averaged 120-plus. The league average was 118.8.
And no individual reflected the league spirit more than the 25-year-old Chamberlain, who averaged 37.6 as a rookie, followed that up with 38.4, and now, deep into his third season, was on his way to establishing a scoring record that sounds like science fiction to a modern fan’s ears: 50.4 points a game.
Against the Knicks, Wilt had 41 at the half and 69 at the end of three. His own recently established record of 78 points (in a triple-overtime game) was clearly going to fall.
Philadelphia’s truly legendary public-address man Dave Zinkoff was bellowing out the mounting point total after every field goal or foul shot. The Hershey Sports Arena gathering of 4,124 was screaming, “Give it to Wilt,’’ and the compliant Philadelphia teammates, recognizing the possibility of history being made, did exactly that.
It just seemed right that someday Wilt should score 100. He was coming off a 61-point game two nights earlier and was in the midst of a four-game stretch in which he would score an absurd 293 points.
He was 7 feet 1 inch, 275 pounds, and a superb all-around athlete who had already established himself as the greatest scoring machine the game had ever known. Scoring 100 was always conceivable, if . . .
If he could make enough of those uncontested 15-footers, that is. Wilt was Shaq before Shaq, a miserable foul shooter.
But that night, Wilt went an inexplicable 28 for 32 from the line.
True, 1961-62 was his best year at the line. He finished at .613, by far the best achievement of a career that would end with a career free throw percentage of .511 and saw him shoot under 50 percent from the line six times. Why was he a 28-for-32 guy that night? No one knows.
Imagine the media frenzy if someone were to score 100 points today. Now, the 1962 game was duly reported and the story probably made the front sports pages of all the appropriate big daily newspapers. But there was no video of any kind, and only a partial audio tape (the final 8 points) of Bill Campbell’s radio play-by-play.
Amazingly, no one knows just how Wilt scored points 99 and 100, and that includes surviving eyewitnesses.
Associated Press writer Bill Barnard reported in a 25th anniversary story on the game that accounts ranged from a dunk (Harrisburg Patriot-News writer Harry Goff), to a “half-layup, half-dunk’’ (AP photographer Paul Vathis), to something “pretty close to the basket’’ (teammate Guy Rodgers, who says he was standing on the other side of midcourt), to an NBA Guide declaration that it came “on a layup off a pass from Paul Arizin,’’ to Wilt’s own version, “a middle-distance jumper’’ (his 1973 autobiography).
The Barnard story cites Campbell’s aforementioned radio call, which says that the final basket came when sub Ted Luckenbill twice rebounded a Wilt miss, the second time passing it to Joe Ruklick, who then passes it to Wilt for his 63d shot attempt of the evening. And then?
The ball wound up in the basket. Dunk? Jumper? Finger roll? No one knows. Before Wilt went to his grave in 1999, he would offer multiple versions, contradicting his own autobiography.
Absent video, or a far more specific written record, the game reeks of myth, which may not be a bad thing. As teammate Al Attles (a quiet 8 for 8 in the game) said in Barnard’s 1987 story, “The people who played in it have a little poetic license. I can say a lot of things that no one can refute because there is no record.’’
It was most definitely not your typical NBA game, not even your typical 316-points-combined NBA game. The outcome never really in doubt, the game became something of a farce once the Warriors decided to help Wilt go for the century. You had the Knicks trying to squeeze the 24-second clock on every fourth-quarter possession to deny Wilt the ball and you had the Warriors deliberately fouling the Knicks to maximize possessions.
By the way, you think the Red Sox and Yankees are a rivalry? Check out the reaction of Celtics owner Walter Brown. In a story whose day-after headline was, “Wilt’s 100 points fail to impress Celtics’ owner,’’ Mr. Brown told our Jerry Nason, “He’s so big that nobody but [champion pole vaulter] John Uelses can get above him,’’ adding that, “I think it’s more impressive when a smaller man like Frank Selvy scores 100 points than when Wilt does it.’’ (Furman’s Selvy had scored 100 against Wofford a number of years earlier.)
Meanwhile, Red Auerbach’s response was entirely predictable.
“Chamberlain will never do it against our Bill Russell!’’ he snorted.
Four days and one game later, Wilt and the Warriors came to Boston. The 100-point game had been sandwiched between a 61 and a 58. Final score in Boston: Celtics 153, Warriors 102. Nine Celtics were in double figures, and Satch Sanders had 9 points. Russell had 21 points and 23 rebounds.
Wilt? Wilt had 30 points and 27 rebounds. I’m going to guess Red gloated all through his postgame Chinese dinner.