Imagine Wilt Chamberlain scoring his NBA record 100 points today, in the Twitter age. The service, which one recent night blew up after an undrafted second-year free agent from Harvard tossed in 38 (page 30), would have gone thermonuclear as the play-by-play on March 2, 1962, piled up: "Wilt 23 through 1Q #BigDipper"; "Dippy Dips to 41 at half #Staytuned"; "Stilt 69 through 3 #Celtsbite!"; "Pass from Ruklick, DIPPERDUNK, 100!!!!!!!!!! #Wiltcentury".
Instead, as the golden anniversary of Chamberlain's feat approaches, we marvel not only at the tridigital accomplishment but also at the lack of coverage it received. Because the game between the Knicks and Wilt's Philadelphia Warriors was played in Hershey, Pa., only two photographers were on hand—and one of them left after the first quarter. There was no TV feed. Heck, no footage of any kind exists. The one lasting image is a photo of Wilt holding a piece of paper on which Philly publicity director Harvey Pollack had scrawled 100. In hoops terms, that stark sheet is a Picasso etching.
Here's another marvel: Many pundits did not think the 100-point explosion was that big a deal. This was due partly to the NBA's low standing in the sports pantheon, to Wilt's status as the game's preeminent villain ("Nobody roots for Goliath," he was fond of saying) and partly to veiled racism. Nationwide the event was noted in headlines but not dwelt upon. SI relegated it to four sentences in FOR THE RECORD. (FOR SHAME! more aptly describes the limited attention.) Others noted that the Knicks had the league's second-worst team record in 1961--62 and, in those days of man-to-man defense, had no one who could match up with the 7' 1", 260-pound Chamberlain. (Never mind that no one in the world could handle that package of speed, power and touch, not even Wilt's nemesis, the Celtics' Bill Russell.) The Boston Globe's Harold Kaese churlishly wrote that the scoring outburst "came as no surprise to this writer" and predicted that "within 10 years 100-point games will be common for pro players."
As prognostications go, Kaese's ranks alongside another involving a Chamberlain—British prime minister Neville, who returned from Munich in 1938 declaring that he had achieved "peace in our time." A half-century has vanished, and not one NBA player—not Michael Jordan (career high: 69 points), Pete Maravich (68), George Gervin (63), Shaquille O'Neal (61), Larry Bird (60), LeBron James (56) or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (55)—has approached the Game of the Century. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant mounted what amounted to an assault, scoring 81 on Jan. 22, 2006, against the Raptors. That total was achieved with the aid of seven three-pointers, a weapon that was unavailable to Wilt, but one which, as a player who relied on dunks, layups, finger rolls and a fadeaway bank shot, he wouldn't have availed himself of anyway. Besides the points total, several records the Dipper set that night in Philly's 169--147 victory remain on the books, including field goal attempts (63), field goals made (36) and, most mind-boggling for such a terrible foul shooter, free throws made (28, on 32 attempts).
Al Attles, Chamberlain's teammate that night and now, at 75, the Golden State Warriors' elder statesman, thinks the mark has resonated for another reason: the serendipperous century mark itself. "Wilt actually tried to come out of the game before he got to 100," Attles recalls, "and [coach] Frank [McGuire] would not take him out." But given that 46 seconds remained after Wilt threw down his final dunk, he could have overshot the mark. Says Attles of that notion, "I told Wilt, 'Big fella, I am really happy you didn't score one more basket. One hundred points sounds a lot better than 102.'" It's also its own mnemonic and caters to our craving for nice round numbers.
And thus Wilt's 100 stands as the Mount Olympus of hoops milestones. The offensive climate will never be as balmy as it was in '61--62, when the league's scoring average was a record 118.8 points. Through Sunday, only three NBA teams were averaging more than the 100 points Wilt scored in one night. No one player today could mangle a foe the way that Chamberlain did on his way to averaging an alltime high 50.4 points for the season. The highest non-Wilt number since? Jordan's 37.1 in '86--87.
"The coaching now would make it difficult with double teams and triple teams," says Attles, who directed the Warriors to the '75 NBA title. "[A coach would] get the ball out of the guy's hands. He'd have to pass it."
In 1936, the year of Wilt's birth, Fats Waller introduced a song titled (It Will Have to Do) Until the Real Thing Comes Along. In sports, the real thing came along 50 years ago next week. It won't again.