'Wilt, 1962': 48 Minutes, 100 Points
By LIZ ROBBINS, June 12, 2005
The number itself is beyond belief on a basketball court today -- part myth, part monument. When Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points on March 2, 1962, in Hershey, Pa., before a half-empty arena of 4,124 people, few reporters and no television cameras, he not only forged his legacy, he altered the way the game would be played and perceived. No player since has come close to the individual record, not even Michael Jordan, who once scored 69 in an overtime game. ''He was a one-man revolution,'' Gary M. Pomerantz writes in ''Wilt, 1962.''
From one man, one game and 100 points, Pomerantz expands his narrative in every direction. He conducted more than 250 interviews, 56 with people who were in attendance that night. His grasp of even the most arcane detail helps to create a vibrant sociological and historical context for Chamberlain, the Big Dipper, who, powerfully graceful at 7 feet 1 inch and 260 pounds, was at the height of his career at the age of 25 when he propelled the Philadelphia Warriors to a 169-147 victory over the New York Knicks.
Pomerantz describes Hershey as a close-knit candy town of 6,000 people whose founder, Milton Snavely Hershey, had attempted to turn it into a utopia. This was the hometown of the 14-year-old Kerry Ryman, who had sneaked into the game with his buddies and caused harmless havoc when he stole the ball after Chamberlain's 100th point and dashed out of the Hershey Sports Arena.
The brief biographical information Pomerantz supplies about Chamberlain's early life is necessary only to bolster the narrative of the game. One chapter quickly turns from Chamberlain's play at Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia, where he once scored 90 points, to his three years at the University of Kansas. But the allure of entertainment and professional basketball -- plus $65,000 -- prompted Chamberlain to forgo his senior year and join the Harlem Globetrotters for one season of gallivanting in Europe before joining the Warriors. Pomerantz depicts him as isolated from his teammates, except when he was spinning tales of his driving or poker games in the locker room. Only once did he use his powerful celebrity to endorse a candidate, Richard Nixon in 1968, to the dismay of fellow blacks and to his regret. Later, he would support black causes only quietly.
In ''Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: A Saga of Race and Family'' (1996), Pomerantz explored race and politics through two families, one black and one white. In ''Wilt, 1962,'' he shows how race was the underlying current for the 13-year-old National Basketball Association, whose teams had unspoken quotas for black players.
In that era, a black man's typical response to feeling devalued and humiliated, Pomerantz writes, was to display grandiosity. He equates Chamberlain's hyperbolic performance with those of Willie Mays, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and James Baldwin. ''The Dipper's climb to 100 had those same qualities: a gorgeous, showy, overheated, snaking, furious display of overkill and virtuosity.''
Chamberlain's game mightily defied the idea of quotas, serving as both a jarring and a uniting force in basketball. ''He entered what was still largely a white man's game, took it above the rim and made it his,'' Pomerantz writes. ''The game's traditionalists, seeing the future, blanched. He was, at the core, an individualist, the ultimate alpha male. He loved his sport, he loved his women, and he loved himself.'' When he left Hershey, it was not on the team bus but in a Cadillac convertible, with the Knicks forward Willie Naulls, bound for his Harlem nightclub, Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise.
Pomerantz draws on the tension between Chamberlain, with his many individual records, and Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, with his 11 N.B.A. championships, to highlight Chamberlain's inner conflict between winning and starring. In Hershey, he got to do both. The narrative follows, loosely, the four-quarter structure of the game, and even though we know the outcome, Pomerantz deliciously describes the drama leading up to that 100th point as Chamberlain scored 31 in the fourth quarter.
With his teammates working in concert to get him his record -- the Knicks' Richie Guerin was disgusted with the Warriors' lack of sportsmanship -- Chamberlain scored his 100th point with just 46 seconds to play. He uncharacteristically sank 28 of 32 free throws (a clue the night was like none other for a notoriously poor free-throw shooter, the Shaquille O'Neal of his day), and made 36 of 63 field-goal attempts on his typical fadeaway and finger roll. But the dunk was his defining shot, one that few players executed with regularity because it was considered too showy.
Chamberlain blasted that theory in one night. ''A Dipper dunk! A Dipper dunk!'' yelled Bill Campbell, the WCAU Philadelphia radio broadcaster, in his famous call. Russell smiled upon hearing the news. ''The Big Fella finally did it,'' he said.
Chamberlain averaged a record 50.4 points that season, and two years later the N.B.A. would widen the lane, setting him back farther from the basket. He still dominated, but no more so than on this night of power and mystique -- a story now narrated in a book that turns the box score into a tapestry of sweaty faces, squeaking sneakers and roaring emotions.
Liz Robbins covers the National Basketball Association for The Times.