The following is my column that ran on C2 of last Sunday’s Press Democrat.
It stands out freakishly, like the fictional Pushmi-pullyu, the two-headed creature from the old Dr. Doolittle children’s stories, with each head facing an opposite direction. It’s that odd, that unreal. As laughable as it is exotic. As sports accomplishments go, the legacy of Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in an NBA game exists more as carnival exhibit or myth from ancient times (or at least pre-ESPN, black-and-white TV times) than bearing any relevance to real basketball, let alone reality.
The 50th anniversary of this seemingly Herculean feat arrives today, March 2, and so it’s appropriate, if you care about basketball history, to discuss it.
Some of the cold, isolated facts are worth mentioning:
The NBA, in only its 13th season of existence, still hadn’t completely shaken off its small-town, barnstorming roots, hence the game of March 2, 1962, between the Philadelphia Warriors and New York Knicks was held in Hershey, Pa., before 4,124.
Chamberlain, a pathetically poor free-throw shooter despite being the most physically dominant athlete of any sport, ever (with the possible exception of Babe Ruth in the Roaring ’20s), scored 28 of his 100 points on 87.5 percent shooting from the line.
The final score: Warriors 169, Knicks 147.
In that 80-game season, Chamberlain averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds. Thanks to overtimes, he averaged more than 48 minutes a game. But Bill Russell won the league’s MVP award in 1962, and Russell’s Boston Celtics won the NBA championship, just as they had done the previous three seasons and just as they would the following four seasons.
For those of us old enough to remember, the Chamberlain-Russell rivalry played out year after year like a favorite dramatic series on TV, except it was live and unscripted although the ending was always the same: Russell, the ultimate team player, would lead the Celtics to championship glory while Chamberlain, the ultimate individual player, would lead himself to the statistical stratosphere, while his team’s ultimate defeats were too often of the postseason’s seventh-game variety. In the 10 years the NBA’s two epic figures staged their Shakespearean rivalry, only once did Chamberlain prevail, when his Philadelphia 76ers won the league title in 1967.
Fascination with the Russell-Chamberlain rivalry never gets old. The classic team player vs. sport’s Goliath. Russell’s reputation as the greatest winner in sports history is likely to shine forever: Two NCAA titles, an Olympic gold medal, 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons. For Chamberlain, who died in 1999 at 63, well, besides virtually rewriting the record book, he did win two NBA titles (the second, in 1972 with the Lakers, came three years after Russell retired) on teams regarded among the best in NBA history, better than any of Russell’s.
And he did score 100 points in a game 50 years ago.
But now if a young NBA fan associates any number at all to Chamberlain it’s 20,000 — the number of women he notoriously claimed to have slept with. It was an unfortunate boast, if “boast” is the right word, which it isn’t.
In a disarming interview with Pat Jordan in 1997, Chamberlain, then 61 years old and portrayed as egocentric and eccentric as ever but also terribly lonely, said this about his famous sex stat:
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d emphasize more that it would have been better for me to have one woman a thousand times. It’s my sorrow. It embarrasses me, I wasn’t bragging that I was a great lover, a Don Juan. Actually, if you look at it, you can say that I had so many women once because I was such a bad lover they never came back a second time.”
Finally, in observing the 50th anniversary of Chamberlain’s 100-point game, it might be challenging to meditate on one of the most provocative, outlandish, simultaneously puzzling and honest statements by a world-class athlete. It comes from his autobiography “Wilt,” co-written by David Shaw.
“To Bill (Russell), every game … was a challenge, a test to his manhood. He took the game so seriously that he threw up in the locker room before almost every game. But I tend to look at basketball as a game, not a life or death struggle. I don’t need scoring titles or NBA championships to prove that I’m a man. There are too many other beautiful things in life … to get that emotionally wrapped up in basketball. I think Bill knew I felt that way, and I think he both envied and resented my attitude. … I wish I had won all those championships, but I really think I grew more as a man in defeat than Russell did in victory.”