Forty-six years ago tonight, Wilt Chamberlain knocked the socks off the college basketball world. No KU player before or since has surpassed Chamberlain's collegiate debut. Chamberlain scored 52 points and grabbed 31 rebounds against Northwestern on Dec. 3, 1956.
Curious for more facts about that fateful night, I went to the archives and gleaned these tidbits: Allen Fieldhouse was not sold out. According to the Journal-World game story, a crowd "estimated at 15,000 was on hand in the 17,000-seat fieldhouse." Estimated? You guessed it. Allen Fieldhouse, like Memorial Stadium, doesn't have turnstiles.
(By the way, KU's home arena has never had 17,000 seats. That number was fiction and later revised downward. So if the fieldhouse wasn't full that night, there probably were only about 12,000 fans in the seats).
Northwestern wasn't chopped liver The Wildcats were considered one of the favorites to win the Big 10 Conference championship in 1956-57. Coach Waldo Fisher had two talented big men in 6-foot-11 Bill Schultz and 6-9 Joe Ruklick. Few teams had as many as two players who stood that tall. Kansas sure didn't. The Jayhawks had just one.
Northwestern underestimated Chamberlain. Although Wilt the Stilt had wowed everyone as a freshmen - frosh weren't eligible for varsity competition then - Northwestern's players weren't impressed. Before the season opener, Ruklick said: "He sure as hell can't be as good as they've been saying."
Chamberlain wasn't perfect. Although most of his shots were taken around the basket, including several dunks, Chamberlain misfired on 9 of 29 shots. As most people know, Chamberlain was no whiz as a free-throw shooter as a Jayhawk or in the NBA - neither is Shaq, the contemporary player most comparable to him - but Wilt made 12 of 20 charities in the 87-69 victory.
Dick Harp was suitably impressed, but a coach is a coach is a coach. Harp, who had been the mandatory-retired Phog Allen's aide, was in his first season as head coach. "We think he has the ability to get better and better as he goes along," Harp said.
Chamberlain never did score 52 points again, but then again no other KU player has, either. However, he did surpass the 31 rebounds when he retrieved 36 boards against Iowa State the next year, his last before leaving Mount Oread to join the Harlem Globetrotters.
Northwestern's coach and players ate humble pie. "We knew he was sensational," NU coach Fisher said, "but had no idea he'd be that good." Awed, too, was Ruklick who, looking at a reporter who stood just under 6-feet tall, quipped: "I felt about as helpless out there as you. I'll admit I probably underestimated him. He's just the greatest I've ever seen, that's all."
Ruklick scored 22 points against Chamberlain. Ruklick's offense prompted Journal-World sports editor Earl Morey to pen: "If he improves defensively, the big fellow could replace George Mikan as Mr. Basketball." You have to remember that 22 points was a lot in those days. Still, when you outscore the other guy by 30, is defense really that big a concern?
Harp used 16 players. No coach today can utilize that many because 16 is two over the scholarship limit. Ron Loneski, another sophomore, was the second-leading scorer with eight points, but Loneski might have scored more if he hadn't suffered a serious ankle injury. What we don't know is how many minutes Chamberlain played. In those days, they didn't log that statistic.
Chamberlain's feat made the front page. Hardly surprising. Still, the Journal-World played the story at the bottom of the front page. Above it was another sports story about KU football coach Chuck Mather being hung in effigy in front of Watson Library. Mather had just completed his third season with a 3-6-1 record.
Chamberlain's next outing was merely great. On the following Saturday, Marquette came to Lawrence and Chamberlain dominated the Warriors - their nickname then - with a mere 39 points and 23 boards. He made only half of his field goal attempts (15 of 30), and 9 of 14 free throws. KU won, 78-61. Curiously, only 11,000 fans - estimated, of course - showed up for that one even though it was played on the weekend.
Chamberlain went on to average 29.6 points and 18.9 rebounds that season. How good are those numbers? They're untouchable.