It is perhaps the most mythical event in American sports history for a variety of reasons. The sheer volume of points is mind-boggling, but it’s memorability and aura lies in its seeming perfection.
Not 98. Not 103.
It’s a number of totality. Completeness. Fulfillment. Even purity.
Working in mythological concert with this perfect score is the startling lack of footage of this Herculean or, should we say, Wiltonian event. Televised games were a luxury for the NBA in 1962 and for a league still finding its way, luxuries had no place in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the location of this epic performance.
In true mythological form, the stature of this game has only grown with time. Initially, given the NBA’s almost token presence on the American sports landscape, the game wasn’t much ballyhooed. Even local press from Philadelphia and New York deigned to make the trip to Hershey to cover the match. Instead their top flight reporters were in Florida reporting on the big news of early March: Major League Baseball starting training camp. But like the NBA, this game’s aura, its presence, has grown.
And it represents the important duality of the NBA’s growth.
Of the two mesmerizing records of the early NBA, there is the regal domination of the Celtics dynasty. 11 championships in 13 years. On the other, the unfathomable statistical reign of Wilt Chamberlain exemplified by the 100 point game. The Celtics domination is fairly simple to understand and gave the public something to remember of the emerging NBA.
13 years. 11 titles. Count the rings, baby.
Chamberlain’s exploits, and in particular this game, remain perhaps under-appreciated and definitely misunderstood. In a league struggling to grow beyond its nine cities, its paltry television contract, its second-rate status behind football and baseball, Wilt Chamberlain gave the public something to talk about (and someone to root against) just as much, if not more so, than the Celtics’ titles.
Today it is fairly easy to look back at the game and chastise Chamberlain for a supposedly selfish performance. Today we have the luxury of an established league where publicity is a given, no matter the outcome of games. The NBA has a machine to ensure that. You can get highlights and news from ESPN, NBATV, TSN, SBNation, and a variety of other outlets dedicated purely to sports or just the NBA.
In 1962, the NBA was a bit player. Walt Bellamy wasn’t going on The Ed Sullivan Show to talk about his stellar rookie season. Given the context this game was no farce, it was no charade. It was deadly serious for the growth of the NBA.
More than that, it was spectacular. It was compelling.
It was pure Wilt Chamberlain.
With only five games left in the 1961-62 season for the Philadelphia Warriors, there was little to get excited for as they took the court in Hershey, Pennsylvania. They were 46-29 and firmly set in the second seed for the postseason as the Boston Celtics were sitting pretty at #1 with 54 wins.
Likewise, the New York Knickerbockers had little to play for in this game as well, but for more depressing reasons. They were 27-45 and firmly planted in last place in the East. In today’s NBA with absolutely nothing at stake, this game probably would have passed quietly into the night.
On the Warriors side, Wilt, Paul Arizin and Guy Rodgers would have played half a game or not at all to nurse nicks and bruises. For the Knicks Richie Guerin, Willie Nauls and Johnny Green would likely have done the same.
However, it was 1962 and things were… a little different for the NBA.
The Warriors were playing out in Hershey precisely because it was the NBA of yesteryear where these regional, neutral-site regular season games were a means of spreading the reach of the NBA in an era where TV coverage was spotty and the main source of income was gate receipts. Needing that ticket money, the blue chip players were out there ready to go, even if there was nothing to play for in terms of seeding for the postseason.
However as the game got flowing, it quickly became clear that Wilt Chamberlain was in much more of a groove than normal even considering this mammoth season where he averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds and played practically every minute that year, hence his 48.5 minutes per game average. Chamberlain and the Warriors had smacked the Knicks hard and quick in the first quarter going up 42-26. Wilt already had 23 points and, most curiously, had made all nine of his free throws.
Eventually a notoriously awful free throw shooter, Chamberlain at this point in his career was merely bad with a .613 average for the season, which would be a career high. A couple years later he ditched the underhanded style that brought him this marginal success and his percentage plummeted to a miserable .471 thereafter.
Wilt’s pace eased in the second quarter as he scored 18 points and the Knicks led by Guerin, Naulls and (surprisingly) rookie Cleveland Buckner had cut into the margin. The halftime score was 79-68 in favor of Philly. Having 41 points at halftime was only marginally noteworthy for Chamberlain that year, so the Hershey crowd was a bit sleepy. However, as the second half opened, Warriors players (perhaps needing something to aim for given the lack of playoff implications) made a concerted effort to bury the Knicks and see just how much the Big Dipper could score.
Facing triple- and even quadruple-teams, Chamberlain scored 28 points in the third quarter bringing his game total to 69. He was mercilessly hacked, whether the refs called the foul or not. Chamberlain and his coach, Frank McGuire, would complain then and later that the refs were allowing far too much contact go. The referees, then and later, would swallow their whistles figuring the only hope the Knicks, or any team, had was to beat up on the Goliath Chamberlain. Nevertheless when he did get the foul call, Chamberlain continued, miraculously, to make his free throws.
He would finish the night 28-for-32 from the line.
As the fourth quarter started, the Warriors were ahead 125 – 106 as the game took on an odd character. The Knicks were deliberately stalling on offense despite being down. Well, except when firebrand point guard Guerin would cuss up a storm and drive the length of the court in a blaze of fury and score a basket. The Warriors on the other hand, despite being up, were keen on keeping up the torrid pace. Philly won that test of wills as the final frame saw 85 combined points scored.
Chamberlain threw in 31 of them in a variety of spectacular ways: there were alley oop dunks, tip in dunks, and dunks with a Knicks player hanging on his side. He was working his fade away jumper off the backboard to perfection. He delivered twirling, sinuous finger rolls. And, of course, there were the uncharacteristic free throws dropping in spades.
Later it would be commented on just how soft and friendly the rims were in that Hershey arena.
The crowd by this point was in a frenzy. Oohing and awing and cheering the Warriors on after every Wilt bucket and booing and insulting the Knicks for their stall tactics, which included immediately fouling any Warriors player not named “Chamberlain” as soon as they touched the ball. Fans were demanding the ball go into Wilt and were going home unsatisfied if he didn’t reach 100. Dave Zinkoff, the Warriors announcer, was in rare form driving the frenzy to higher ground after each play giving every nuanced, inflated inflection to his trademark announcement of “another Dipper dunk!”
Finally, with 46 seconds left in the game and sitting on 98 points, Wilt received a lob from teammate Joe Ruklick and he flushed it home for the 100th point.
It was elegant. It was powerfully graceful.
It was pure Wilt Chamberlain.
In the most bizarre contest of wills, the Warriors had won. All the men on the Warriors side gleefully fed Wilt the ball to see just how much he could score. It gave purpose to an otherwise purposeless game in their eyes. Richie Guerin of the Knicks harbored a grudge over the game calling it a farce. But that very night his fellow ex-Marine and Warriors opponent, Paul Arizin, had playfully told Guerin if Wilt’s scoring binge bothered him then he should stop him from scoring.
And that was the most disconcerting thing. Guerin and the entire Knicks roster could not stop one man from imposing his will.
Thankfully, they could not stop Wilt because this game, his performance, was perfect for its era. 12 years earlier, the Fort Wayne Pistons and Minneapolis Lakers had played a game that was the opposite, but in many ways the equal of Wilt’s 100 points. Like the Warriors, the Lakers boasted an indomitable big man in George Mikan. Like the Knicks, the Pistons responded by stalling. The final score then was 19-18. The final score in Hershey was 169-147.
In an age of breathtaking, expansive invention, the shot clock in 1954 had ensured a repeat of the disastrous 1950 Pistons-Lakers game would never happen. But Wilt seemed to have taken things to the other extreme now. Was his 100 points too much? Was it symbolic of man going out of control pushing limits that needed no more pushing.
After all, this was the age of Mutually Assured Destruction. The Cuban Missile Crisis six months after Wilt’s 100 points nearly tested just how mutual atomic destruction could be. Sputnik had gone into space five years earlier and John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth just days before Chamberlain took the court in Hershey.
It was an era of spectacular wonder and awesome fear. Chamberlain’s 100 points fed into both of those emotions and they still do. It is mesmerizing to see that one man can so willfully bend the rules, the concepts, the pure essence of the game to his will. But at the same time, one man against the multitude’s best attempts can indeed do all these things.
It was dramatic. It was frightening. It was spellbinding.
It was pure Wilt Chamberlain