"I Heard the Fans Yelling for 100"
Forty years after it happened, it's still hard to believe Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single game
Again and again, the big man kept hitting the target with amazing and chilling accuracy, almost surprising himself with how easy it seemed, and how shot after shot never failed to find its mark.
Wilton Norman Chamberlain was indeed impressed and satisfied by his awe-inspiring achievement on March 2, 1962 – 45 years ago on Friday.
“I was hitting everything,” he told anyone who would listen. “I’m talking about a world record.”
Big numbers and Chamberlain went together like burgers and beer – particularly during the 1961-62 season, when the Big Dipper amassed the highest scoring average in league annals – 50.4 points. Only three years into his NBA career, the 7-1, 275-pound center for the Philadelphia Warriors had already established himself as a walking wonder of the world. He was on his way to winning the league scoring title for the third of what would be seven consecutive years, and in the mind of the 25-year-old pivotman, it was only a matter of time before the as-yet unthinkable – scoring 100 points in an NBA game – would occur.
“It was inevitable that season,” Chamberlain related in Terry Pluto’s book, Tall Tales. “I was averaging 50 points. I had 78 in a game [three months earlier]. In high school, I once scored 90 [in 32 minutes] and shot 36-for-41. I always scored a lot, so I figured that 100 would come.”
“Hardly any New York reporters were there,” longtime Philadelphia publicist Harvey Pollack said. “The biggest paper in Philadelphia – the Inquirer – didn’t even send a reporter. I was the public relations man for the Warriors and I also was covering the game for the Inquirer, Associated Press and United Press International. And I was working as the Warriors’ PR man.”
There were only five games remaining before the playoffs. The Warriors were solidly in second place in the East and their opponents that night, the New York Knicks, were in last. Said official Pete D’Ambrosio, who worked the game with Willie Smith: “The only reason it was played was because it was on the schedule. The last thing anyone expected was basketball history.”
The attention of the country was in other places that day; Lt. Col. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth a few days before, was given a tickertape parade in Manhattan … a jetliner crash upon takeoff at Idlewild Airport killed all 95 on board … and President Kennedy was preparing to address the nation the following evening on the subject of nuclear testing and disarmament, a topic that seven months later would culminate with the Cuban Missile Crisis and teeter the world at the brink of nuclear war.
It was on this small, out-of-the-way stage that history would unfold, and there were some who had an inkling something special was about to happen. Said Warriors teammate Tom Meschery: “Right away, I knew Wilt was in for a big night because he was making all his free throws.”
But when the teams came out for the second half, the pace quickened. Chamberlain’s teammates fed him the ball repeatedly, and the Knicks were unable to stop him. And by the time the third-quarter buzzer sounded, Chamberlain had registered a jaw-dropping 69 points. The crowd had been awakened, and began chanting “Give it to Wilt! Give it to Wilt!” every time the Warriors came down the floor.
Everyone around him – the fans, his teammates and the opposition – was thinking about history. All Chamberlain was thinking about was finding a seat on the bench to watch the end of this otherwise meaningless affair.
“When I got into the 80s, I heard the fans yelling for 100,” Chamberlain said. “I thought, ‘Man, these people are tough. Eighty isn’t good enough. I’m tired. I’ve got 80 points and no one has ever scored 80.’ At one point, I said to [teammate] Al Attles, ‘I got 80, what’s the difference between 80 and 100?’ But the guys kept feeding me the ball.”
With ignominy staring them in the face, the Knicks were determined not to be a footnote to history. They began to stall, letting the shot clock run down before shooting, then immediately fouling every Warrior but Chamberlain. Nothing came easy.
“Every point that Wilt got against New York that night was well-earned,” said teammate Paul Arizin. “Wilt didn’t like the New York team, and the New York players didn’t especially like Wilt. They gave him absolutely nothing.”
As Chamberlain himself had said, it was inevitable. Not that the Knicks felt any better about it, particularly Richie Guerin, whose team-high 39 points were forgotten.
“Wilt is the best big man to play the game – ever,” Guerin said, “but that game was not played as it should have been played. The second half was a travesty. I don’t care what the Philly people say, I’m convinced that during the half they decided to get Wilt 100. He took nearly every shot … I’m sorry, this may be basketball history, but I always felt very bad about that game. I got so sick of it that I intentionally fouled out.”
Remembered D’Ambrosio, “The last three minutes of the game took about 20 minutes. The Knicks were jumping on guys just to keep the ball away from Wilt. Then New York would get the ball, and Philly would foul.”
The Knicks were able to hold Chamberlain off for 47 minutes and 14 seconds, but with 46 ticks remaining, it finally happened. Strangely, there is disagreement on exactly how Wilt’s 99th and 100th points were scored, but Pollack remembers that Joe Ruklick got the rebound of a missed Chamberlain shot, passed the ball back inside, and Chamberlain scored on either a layup or a dunk.
The final score was Warriors 169, Knicks 147. Lost was the fact three Knicks scored more than 30 points – Guerin, Cleveland Butler and Willie Naulls, and that Attles was Philadelphia’s second-leading scorer … with 17 points.
Some accessories of that box score would just as soon prefer what took place never did. Darrall Imhoff, the Knicks’ starting center that night, could not be blamed for feeling a bit dazed when he said, “I can’t have a nightmare tonight. I’ve just lived through one.”
Besides his 100 points, Chamberlain set two other records that night that still stand today – most field goals (36) and attempts (63) in one game and a tie for most free throws in one game (28).
Still, even before the din of the tiny crowd subsided in Hershey Arena, there was more a feeling of shock in the air than elation.
Said Chamberlain, “The 100-point game will never be as important to me as it is to some other people, because I’m embarrassed by it. After I got into the 80s, I pushed for 100 and it destroyed the game because I took shots that I normally never would. I mean, 63 shots? You take that many shots on the playground and no one ever wants you on their team again.”
The Warriors, however, were delighted to have him on the team.
“Wilt has been superhuman,” Warriors coach Frank McGuire marveled in The New York Times follow-up story two days after game. “I hate to think where we’d be without him, with just a mere human being in his place.”
No other player has come close to duplicating what Chamberlain did 40 years ago on Saturday. Of the top 20 scoring games in NBA annals, Chamberlain has 15 of them. That same season, he piled in totals of 78 points, 73 twice and 72. And over the years, as Chamberlain was able to look back before his passing in 1999, even he came to appreciate the magic he had provided that March evening.
“What I like best about it,” Chamberlain said in an ESPN interview, “is that there is no videotape or film of it. There is just a scratchy radio tape. The game is shrouded in myth and mystery, and over the years people have been able to embellish it without facts getting in the way.
“I’ve probably had 10,000 people tell me they saw my 100-point game at Madison Square Garden. Well, the game was in Hershey and there were about 4,000 there. But that’s fine. I have memories of the game and so do they, and over the years the memories get better.”
And continue to, even still.