By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
Posted Mar 1 2012 9:13AM
Season of Giants: 1961-62
NBA.com celebrates the 50th anniversary of a legendary season
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When Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass to Darren Sproles late in the fourth quarter on Dec. 26 to break Dan Marino's record for most passing yards in a season, it was easy enough to take the football out of play and save it for his trophy case.
The ball that Barry Bonds launched over the outfield wall for his record-breaking 756th career home run was identified by a hologram that could be seen only under a special light. It was later purchased at auction for $752,467 by designer Marc Ecko, stamped with an asterisk and now is on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
But as for what would certainly be the single most famous piece of memorabilia in NBA history?
A half-century after Wilt Chamberlain either dunked or laid in the shot that produced the last points of his legendary 100-point game, the location of the ball -- and even its very existence -- is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, shrouded in debate.
Like so much else about the events on the night of March 2, 1962 at Hershey Sports Arena, the story of what happened to the record-setting basketball is short on definitive evidence, left to an oral history that has changed direction faster than a crossover dribble.
What happened to the most famous basketball in NBA history?
• A teammate took the ball as the game ended, carried it to the Philadelphia Warriors' locker room and zipped it up into Wilt's gym bag.
• Warriors' publicist Harvey Pollack says the ball was handed to him by referee Willie Smith, kept by his seat at the courtside press table, carried to the locker room by equipment manager Jeff Millman, put into Wilt's bag and eventually was autographed that night by every member of the team and then taken to team owner Eddie Gottlieb's office at the Sheraton Hotel in Philadelphia. The following day, public address announcer Dave Zinkoff picked up the ball in Gottlieb's office, found an empty panel that had not been signed and used whiteout to print: "This is the ball Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points with on March 2, 1962." Pollack says the ball was then put on display in the office window.
• According to others, Warriors point guard Guy Rodgers, who finished the night with 20 assists -- most of them to Wilt -- celebrated the end of the game by tossing basketballs up into the crowd after the game. Millman has said the team arrived at the arena with a dozen balls and went home with only six.
• Kerry Ryman, a 14-year-old kid from Hershey, who sneaked into the game with his friends, ran onto the floor, took the ball out of Chamberlain's hands and eluded security guards to run clean out of the arena and all the way home, where he kept the ball hidden away for decades.
There is just as much, if not more, speculation about where the ball is today, guesses from Chamberlain's former teammate and good friend Al Attles to his sister Barbara Lewis to possibly the anonymous bidder who might have bought it in an auction from the now-grown-up Hershey kid following Wilt's death in 1999.
"There is no ball. Nobody has a ball," said Sonny Hill, the long-time basketball executive, promoter, broadcaster and a friend of Wilt's dating back to childhood. "Anybody who says they have a ball isn't telling the truth. And I'm willing to be quoted on it."
RYMAN, RUKLICK AND A PIECE OF HISTORY
Through the years, the stories and the lore of the missing basketball have grown larger than the Loch Ness monster.
Suspect No. 1 is usually Attles, who was the Warriors' second-highest scorer that night with 17 points. He shot a perfect 8-for-8 from the floor and 1-for-1 from the line, all overlooked in the rubble of Wilt's 100-point bomb.
Wilt is said to have signed the ball: "To Al. He did everything right at the wrong time."
"I have a ball and that's what Wilt wrote to me," Attles said. "But it's not the ball. I don't have it, never did. Maurice Podoloff was the NBA commissioner at that time. The ball I have is signed by the guy who followed him, Walter Kennedy."
Kerry Ryman's tale is the one most often told, the most colorful, the one that is a cross between fitting coda and urban legend. He and his pals were old pros at sneaking into events at Hershey Sports Arena and he said it was just a spontaneous act to leap out of his seat, run onto the floor and snatch the ball right out of Wilt's grip in the moment after he had made the historic shot.
Ryman would later claim that he and his friends played with the ball themselves for years.
"Wilt scored 100 points with that ball and I scored a couple hundred thousand with that ball," Ryman told NBC's Tom Brokaw during a live interview in 1999.
According to Gary Pomerantz' book, "Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era", Ryman, now a retired crane operator, and his friend Mike Blouch heard the news of Chamberlain's death and quickly put the ball up for auction on eBay. A bid of $2 million came in, but the bidder could not be located and they took the ball down. Later Ryman and Blouch made an agreement with Leland's, a sports memorabilia firm in New York, to sell the ball and an anonymous bid of $551,000 came in.
When word of Ryman's windfall began to circulate, it became a national story. He found himself being interviewed on ESPN radio and the tale of his childish prank emerged again.
Joe Ruklick was a rarely-used teammate who found himself in the game and became the man who passed the ball to Wilt and made the historic assist.
"I had been on the foul line right before in the final minute of the game and he had 98 points. Before I shot the ball, I said to Wilt, 'I'm going to dump.' That I was going to miss the shot on purpose so he could get the rebound and put it back in for 100.
"But 'Woozy' Smith, the ref, heard me say it and he got furious. He told me, 'Ruklick, if you do anything like that, I'll forfeit this game to New York. All the records will be wiped out. None of this will ever have happened and I'll make sure you never play in the NBA again.'
"I thought, 'Uh-oh.' Wilt looked at me and said, 'Ruklick, what are you thinking?' Just make sure that when it happens you get the ball and take it to the locker room for me. So that's what I did."
In 1999, when Ryman was being interviewed by ESPN, Ruklick was an editorial writer for the Chicago Defender when he got a call in his office.
"They put me on the radio and had me tell me story," Ruklick said. "When I was through, the ESPN guy said, 'What do you think of that, Mr. Ryman?'
"So Ryman tells his story again and I said, 'This guy is trying to build a hotdog stand on Wilt's grave.' I told him, 'Ryman, I'll bet my house against your house if we both take polygraph tests. I'll even pay for the tests and we'll find out who's telling the truth.' The next thing I heard on the line was 'Click!' He hung up."
POLLACK GIVES HIS VERSION
At the same time, reporters were phoning Pollack, 89, who to this day still works for the Philadelphia 76ers. He shot down Ryman's story as well.
Pollack tells a different one.
"No, no, no," Pollack said again, just a few weeks ago. "I don't know what the guy has or where he supposedly got his basketball, but it's not one that Wilt used to score 100.
"I was sitting at courtside, keeping the stats and writing a running game story for the Philadelphia Inquirer. When Wilt scored the 100th point, the fans went crazy and stormed out onto the floor. About a minute later, Willie Smith, one of the referees, walked over to me with a ball in his hands and said, 'Harvey, I think Wilt will want to keep this. Or maybe it should go to the Hall of Fame.'
"I had a bag with other balls right by my feet under the table and so I put the ball in there. Later I had our equipment guy, Jeff Millman, take the ball downstairs and put it into Wilt's bag. That's where it stayed until after the game. When we finally all got to the locker room when the game was over, the ball came out. It was passed around and everybody on the team and in the traveling party signed it. Everybody, that is, except one person: Me."
When Pollack's rebuttal first went public, the anonymous bidder on Ryman's ball withdrew his offer because he could not get definitive verification that was he was bidding on was genuine. Six months later, Leland's put the ball back up for auction. Instead of being labeled as the ball that Chamberlain used to score his 100th point, it was offered up as "a ball used in the game."
The ball sold for $67,791. According to Pomerantz, Ryman cleared about $25,000 in the deal, used it to buy his daughter a car and paid some bills. Since that time, Ryman has kept a low profile, choosing not to become a part of the 50th anniversary celebration.
According to Pollack and Zelda Spoelstra, another long-time league employee who was an executive assistant to then-NBA commissioner Podoloff, the ball was prominently displayed in Gottlieb's office at the Sheraton. Warriors players Tom Gola and Paul Arizin reportedly told friends they saw the ball there.
But at the end of the season, Gottlieb struck a deal to sell the team to a group in San Francisco and over the summer the office equipment and records were packed up to prepare for shipping. Spoelstra says she heard Gottlieb phoned Chamberlain and asked him if he wanted the ball. Wilt reportedly said yes. But nobody who is still alive today can verify that he ever stopped by Gottlieb's office to pick it up.
"If you knew Wilt, you know that he wanted that ball," said Pollack. "I think he came in and got it."
When all of the Warriors' gear arrived on the West Coast, the ball was not in any of the boxes. Attles maintains that subsequent searches over the years never turned it up.
NEXT STOP: KANSAS?
Pollack adds another layer to the mystery. He now insists that in the days after the coast-to-coast media furor with Ryman in 1999, he took a phone call from Ruklick.
"He told me, 'Harvey, I know where the ball is,' " Pollack said. "He said, 'A couple in Kansas has the ball. They were people who befriended him when he was young and first went to school there at the University of Kansas. He kept in touch with them through the years and this was his way of saying thanks.
"I asked Ruklick for their names and he said they didn't want to be identified and deal with all the media. I said, 'OK, but if they people ever changed their minds, would he let me know?' He told me, 'Harvey, I'll call you right away if that happens.'
"Well, maybe six months went by and it hit me that I had never heard from Ruklick. So I called him up and said, 'Joe, have you ever heard from the couple in Kansas?' And he says, 'What couple?' I said, 'The ones with the ball.' And he says, 'What ball?' I told him the ball of Wilt's that we had talked about months ago and he tells me that he and I have never had such a conversation."
Pollack turns his palms up toward the ceiling and shrugs.
When asked about the couple from Kansas, Ruklick's laugh comes roaring through the telephone.
"That's a great story, but it's the first time I've ever heard it," he said. "I don't know anybody in Kansas. The only time I've ever been to Kansas is when I played against Wilt in his first college game. I don't know about any phone call to Harvey. I can't imagine why he would say that. What I know about the ball is what I said. I was an errand boy for Wilt. I took it to the locker room and put it in Wilt's bag. That's the last I saw of it.
"I just tell you I have nothing to gain from my story, which is the plainest. I never tried to make money off it like Ryman. I can't even begin to explain Harvey. The things these guys are saying, it's like an Alfred Hitchcock movie where somebody is trying to get away from the bad guys and he doesn't even know why they're chasing him.
"By the way, Al Attles has the ball. He told me. But he said, 'Joe, I don't want people to know that I have it, because they'll be crawling into my bedroom to get it and I don't need that.' "
WHEREABOUTS STILL A MYSTERY
Attles maintains he has a different ball. Pollack claims adamantly that the ball was autographed by everyone but him. Ruklick insists nobody signed it and the ball went quietly home in Wilt's bag. Ryman is choosing to stay below the radar this time around.
So what happened to the most famous piece of memorabilia in the history of the NBA?
"I'm convinced that Kerry [Ryman] is convinced he had it," said the author Pomerantz. "And Harvey is convinced. And Joe Ruklick is convinced. Let's just say that's how memory is shaped, not by facts but emotions. In some ways, each of these stories brings the teller closer to Wilt."
Maybe then, the real story of the ball is how much it matters to all of them.
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