Wilt Chamberlain had a night that will never be matched
HERSHEY, Pa. (March 2, 1962) – In the minutes before Wilt Chamberlain would begin to put on the most awesome scoring display in the history of the NBA, Philadelphia Warriors head coach Frank McGuire pointed something out to the Big Dipper.
In his hand were a couple of New York newspapers dated March 2, 1962 containing quotes about how the Knicks – that night’s opponent at the Hershey Arena where the Warriors occasionally played home games – were going to run Chamberlain ragged because he was too slow and didn’t have much stamina.
“Let’s run ‘em tonight, Wilt,” McGuire said to his 7-foot-1 behemoth.
The Warriors ran, and ran, and ran, and Chamberlain scored, and scored and scored. When the carnage was complete, a 169-147 Warriors victory, Chamberlain’s stamina was just fine, and the box score showed he had scored an even 100 points to set an NBA record that will in all likelihood never be broken.
During that 1961-62 season Chamberlain scored 4,029 points and averaged 50.4 points per game, also records that will probably never be approached. For some more perspective, Chamberlain owns four of the top five individual scoring seasons in NBA history, and the only other player who has ever surpassed 3,000 points in one year was Michael Jordan in 1986-87.
Chamberlain was a high school phenom in the early 1950s in Philadelphia, often scoring between 70 and 90 points in games for Overbrook as he towered over his opponents at 6-foot-11. More than 200 colleges recruited him, and he eventually chose Kansas.
After leading the Jayhawks into the 1957 national championship game, where they lost in a three-overtime thriller to a North Carolina team that was coached by McGuire, Chamberlain quit school to join the Harlem Globetrotters for a salary of $65,000. But after two years with the Trotters Chamberlain joined the NBA’s Warriors, and in his debut against the Knicks in 1959 he scored 43 points and grabbed 28 rebounds.
Chamberlain led the league in scoring as a rookie, averaging 37.6 points per game, the first of his seven NBA scoring titles. He also averaged 27 rebounds per game, the first of his 11 rebounding titles. The following season he added the field goal percentage crown to his resume, and by the time he retired in 1973 he would win that title 11 times as well.
In 1961-62, the Warriors were hoping to break the stranglehold the Boston Celtics had put on the NBA. Led by Chamberlain’s arch rival, Bill Russell, the Celtics had won three NBA championships in a row and McGuire knew the only way the Warriors could compete with Red Auerbach’s team was to turn Chamberlain loose.
The Warriors constantly fed the imposing center, and Wilt did what he was supposed to do: Score.
He made 1,597 field goals and the Warriors averaged a league-best 125 points per game on their way to winning 49 of 80 games. However, the Celtics went 60-20, and in a classic Eastern Division championship series, Boston outlasted Philadelphia in seven games, winning the finale, 109-107.
But while Boston would go on to win its fourth straight title, what is remembered most about that season is Chamberlain’s individual greatness, and the night he went for 100.
Earlier that season, Chamberlain had set the NBA mark for points in a game with 78, but McGuire had said that night, “Someday, he’ll score 100.”
The Knicks had given Chamberlain plenty of motivation with their pre-game comments about his stamina, and then it was learned that regular New York center Phil Jordan would miss the game because of the flu.
The Warriors quickly attacked his replacement, 6-foot-11 Darrall Imhoff, in the first quarter as Chamberlain made his first six shots and had 23 points when the horn sounded. Imhoff got into foul trouble and while protesting one of the calls he turned to an official and said, “Why don’t you give him 100 points and we’ll all go home.” Imhoff wasn’t exactly a stellar NBA player, but he was one heck of a prophet.
“It was like holding up a tree that had been cut and was about to fall down,” Imhoff said of trying to stop Chamberlain. “You had to keep the thing from collapsing on you. My sneakers were smoking.’’
The Knicks made a second-quarter adjustment, putting 6-foot-9 Cleveland Buckner on Chamberlain, and he fared a little better as Wilt scored only 18. His 41 points were greatly needed because the Warriors’ lead was only 79-68 at the break.
Knicks guard Al Butler remembered what coach Eddie Donovan told the team at halftime. “He told us not to let Wilt touch the ball. We all looked at each other with puzzled looks and thought to ourselves ‘How in the world are we going to do that?’’’
In the third quarter the Warriors continued to feed Chamberlain, and as he erupted for 28 points to raise his three-quarter total to 69, Philadelphia was now firmly in control of the game, leading 125-106, and the 4,124 fans began screaming for Chamberlain to break the scoring record of 78. Of course, they wound up getting much more.
With just under eight minutes left, Chamberlain soared past 78, and now the sights were set on 100. The Knicks could sense this and they tried to kill the clock when they were on offense, using all 24 seconds on the shot clock if necessary. The game was out of hand, and their mission was not to be embarrassed by a 100-point performance.
The game turned farcical when, during the final five minutes, the Knicks started fouling other Warrior players so that Chamberlain couldn’t get the ball or get to the foul line. The Warriors responded by quickly fouling the Knicks to save precious time. Meanwhile, PA announcer Dave Zinkoff kept the fans abreast of the action, updating Chamberlain’s point total with each basket, prompting the crowd to chant “Give it to Wilt, give it to Wilt!’’
Ultimately, Chamberlain reached the magical plateau with 46 seconds left in the game, appropriately enough on the shot that he pretty much patented – the slam dunk. The crowd erupted and many spilled onto the court to congratulate him, delaying the finish of the game.
“We didn’t intend to become part of basketball history, but we really didn’t have much say in the matter,” said Butler. “Wilt had his mind made up, and when Wilt made up his mind to do something on the court in those days he was about as impossible to stop as an earthquake.’’
When it was over, Chamberlain had made 36 of 63 field goal attempts, and an incredible 28 of 32 from the free throw line (87.5 percent). Incredible in that Chamberlain was a notoriously horrible free throw shooter.
His 31 fourth-quarter points and 59 second-half points were NBA records, as were his 36 field goals and 28 free throws. The 316 combined points between the teams were a new league mark, and New York’s 147 points were the most ever scored by a losing team.
“I wasn’t even thinking of hitting 100 but after putting in nine straight free throws, I was thinking about a foul-shooting record,” Chamberlain said. “It was my greatest game. But it would have been impossible to score this many if they hadn’t kept feeding me.”