Way To Go , Wilt originally published in the Concord Monitor 6/24/2012 12/15/2012
I will be posting a few articles I was not able to post previously when my blog was down earlier this year. This one I wrote last summer. 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Chamberlain’s 100-point game. Jon
The NBA playoffs this year were exciting. Although I am a Philly sports fan, after the Sixers went down, I found myself rooting for the Celtics. It was a visceral, emotional thing. I liked the old guys playing together so well, pushing the Heat to the limit and almost winning. Except for that last fourth quarter, the Celts were the Heat’s equal. It was a noble effort.
Watching stirred up some basketball memories for me. When I think of players who played hard and gave all, I think of Wilt Chamberlain, who died in 1999. Wilt, known as “Wilt the Stilt” and “The Big Dipper” was a transformative player, a giant on the court and a fierce competitor. Wilt was 7-foot-1. There were not nearly as many big men playing then, back in the early 1960’s. When he started, Wilt was one of three 7-footers in the NBA.
It is impossible not to think of Wilt’s rivalry with the Celtics’ equally great Bill Russell. There has never been a better basketball match-up. Among Wilt’s accomplishments, he pretty much invented the dunk shot. It was his signature shot and it had its own name – Dipper Dunk. Wilt developed an array of shots. As a finely coordinated athlete, he crafted the finger roll, a hook shot and a fade away bank shot. He was also a great rebounder, and he was no slouch with assists. The NBA changed its rules around goaltending because of Wilt. It also widened the foul line from 6 to 12 feet to eliminate Wilt’s advantage in rebounding and scoring on missed shots.
This year is the 50th anniversary of when Wilt scored 100 points in a game. It is a record that still stands. I was listening to the game that night on my trusty transistor radio from my home in Lower Merion, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, where I grew up. It was March 2, 1962. The Wilt-led Philadelphia Warriors were playing the last place New York Knicks in Hershey, Pa.
Back in the day, the NBA scheduled occasional games in small towns like Hershey to try to drum up interest in basketball. Games were often not recorded or televised. There was no ESPN, no Sports Center and no instant electronic documentation of everything. There were no TV cameras at the game that night, and there is no video of Wilt’s feat. There were hardly any sports writers at Hershey Arena. Tickets cost $2.50. Attendance was 4,124 that night.
Bill Campbell, a well known Philly sportscaster of the era, called the game for WCAU-AM radio. I remember I used to snooker my parents who thought I was upstairs doing homework. I would close the door to my bedroom, plug in earphones and listen. Sometimes I would listen to away games late at night under the covers long after everyone in my family had gone to bed. Among other sports memories, I remember listening when the Phillies lost to the Dodgers in L.A. as they blew the National League pennant during their infamous 1964 slide.
On March 2, 1962, Wilt was coming off a game in which he had scored 61 points. He started with 23 points in the first quarter. He had 41 at half-time. It really wasn’t until the third quarter that people knew something special was up. Wilt had scored 69 after three quarters and 75 with eight and a half minutes left in the game. By that time, the crowd was screaming, “Give it to Wilt!” Dave Zinkoff, the Warriors public address guy, announced Wilt’s tally after each basket.
While he actually missed 27 out of 63 shots from the floor that night, Wilt was in a zone. He went 9 for 9 from the free-throw line in the first quarter and 28 of 32 from the free-throw line during the whole game. That was highly unusual. Wilt was a notoriously bad free-throw shooter, usually shooting around 50 percent.
When the Knicks realized Wilt might reach 100, they did everything they could to stop him. They waited until the 24-second shot clock was about to expire before they shot. They fouled all the Warriors except Wilt. At the same time, the Warriors kept feeding Wilt the ball.
In the fourth quarter, Bill Campbell told listeners, “If you know anybody not listening, call them up. A little history you are sitting in on tonight.” When Wilt scored his last basket with a minute left in the game, the crowd went wild. Spectators mobbed the floor and the game was stopped for some time. There was a picture taken with Wilt holding the number 100.
Wilt was a larger than life character. My dad knew Eddie Gottlieb, the Warriors owner, and he arranged for me to meet Wilt after a game. I remember shaking Wilt’s hand and looking up. I came up to his waist. It was a great moment for a kid.
Kobe Bryant, who is also from Lower Merion, tells a story of meeting Wilt when he was a little boy. Kobe’s father Joe said “Kobe, I want to introduce you to somebody. He’s one of the greatest players of all time”. Kobe looked at Wilt and said “Bombaata”. Bombaata was a character from Conan the Destroyer. Apparently Wilt took no offense.
Supposedly the night before the 100-point game, Wilt was in New York City visiting a lady friend. At 6am, he dropped her off at home. He later said that he had not slept a wink and he had a hangover. He boarded the 8am train to Philadelphia. He was worried he was not going to make it on time to catch the team bus to Hershey. He made it. Back in those days, teams did not necessarily go to a hotel before a game if they were travelling.
The Warriors got to Hershey hours early. Because he had time to kill, Wilt went to the Hershey Arcade. He claimed he set pinball records that afternoon. He won a lot of prizes. He was hot.
In writing about Wilt, I did want to put to rest one off-the-court myth. In his autobiography, Wilt floated the ridiculous assertion he slept with 20,000 women. Wilt no doubt pushed that myth to sell books. Without getting into mathematical calculations, I would assert that Wilt was indulging the male bravado game. A former L.A. reporter Doug Krikorian, who covered the Lakers during Wilt’s time there and who was a close personal friend of Wilt’s, wrote the following:
“Complete hyperbole. Trust me. I spent many a Saturday night where Wilt would call me and say “Let’s go out and have dinner together”. He was the worst guy I’ve ever seen trying to hustle women, I’m serious. That thing should be debunked. Trust me. I saw first hand. Yes, he might have had his share of women, but as a slick hustler, please. No. I saw too many nights where he was alone. I was with him.”
Krikorian, a credible source, said Wilt felt regret for his stupid boast. He felt it took attention away from what he accomplished on the court.
A few years ago, I was at a Border’s outside Philadelphia and I ran into Wilt’s former coach from Overbrook High School, Cecil Mortensen. He was at a table selling his book about Wilt. I chatted him up, and he did have some good Wilt stories. In his book “It All Began With Wilt”, he wrote, “People have always asked me what kind of a person was Wilt. My answer is always the same. He had real character. There was a lot of delinquency around Overbrook at that time, but he was always above it. He came from a really good home life and it showed. He was a good student also. Most of his grades were B’s and what he got, he earned.”
Mortensen told one other story I liked: Overbrook was getting ready to play Frankfort High. Warm-ups were going on and Mortensen was talking to the opposing coach. He looked over at his bench. Wilt was adorned with a golf cap. a shimmering white silk scarf and dark sunglasses. Mortensen said he looked like a character from Mad Magazine. Wilt was an original.