|The only visual evidence that remains from Chamberlain's 100-point night are a few photos and a box score. (AP)|
The one thing everyone can agree on is that when the ball went through the net, the fans stormed the court to celebrate a mythic accomplishment. This was in Hershey Park Arena, at a different time and place in America.
It was a time when anything seemed possible, when our best days were ahead of us. Barely a week earlier, astronaut John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the Earth, and well, if John Glenn could do that, then Americans could do anything.
But 100 points in a professional basketball game? Only Wilt Chamberlain could do that. In all likelihood, only Wilt Chamberlain will ever do that.
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"I'm infatuated with the mistakes that I made in my connection -- however small -- to this event," said Bill Campbell, the play-by-play man whose soothing, matter-of-fact baritone is the only breathing evidence of Chamberlain's 100-point game for the Philadelphia Warriors against the New York Knicks -- 50 years ago Friday.
It was Campbell's voice that had calmly documented history over the airwaves for WCAU radio in Philadelphia on the night of March 2, 1962. It was Campbell who, without any screaming or gimmicks or catch phrases, said simply into the microphone that night, "He made it! He made it! A Dipper Dunk! He made it!" Chamberlain had made it, all right. He'd made history. The Big Dipper had orbited the basketball globe; he'd walked on the orange, dimple-faced moon.
Yet at the time, Campbell didn't fully grasp the enormity of it all. No one did.
"It's inconceivable that three or four guys would not have done it since," Campbell said Wednesday by telephone from his home in suburban Philadelphia. "To me, I thought Kobe [Bryant] would do it, and he's never gotten past 81. I thought Michael Jordan would do it. I really did. I thought we'd see it three or four times."
But never again. Maybe ever.
"All you have from that game is the box score, a few still photographs and the memories of the people who played in it and the few who watched it," said Gary Pomerantz, author of the definitive book on Chamberlain's achievement, Wilt, 1962. "And you have the audio tape from WCAU radio, Bill Campbell's fourth-quarter play-by-play. There's a grandeur to radio that video can't match in some ways."
|Paul Arizin, F||7-18||2-2||16|
|Tom Meschery, F||7-12||2-2||16|
|Wilt Chamberlain, C||36-63||28-32||100|
|Guy Rodgers, G||1-4||9-12||11|
|Al Attles, G||8-8||1-1||17|
|FG: 54.8%||FT: 82.7%|
|New York Knicks|
|Willie Naulls, F||9-22||13-15||31|
|Johnny Green, F||3-7||0-0||6|
|Darrall Imhoff, C||3-7||1-1||7|
|Richie Guerin, G||13-29||13-17||39|
|Al Butler, G||4-13||0-0||8|
|FG: 41.1%||FT: 83.3%|
And there is no video. The Hershey, Pa., arena, where Warriors owner Eddie Gottlieb had agreed to play the game because the money a promoter was putting up exceeded that which could've been generated by ticket sales at Philadelphia's Convention Hall, wasn't well-lit enough for that era's primitive TV cameras. Somehow, this only adds to the majesty of what Chamberlain did that night.
"The fact that it's 100 and not 102 or 98; think of what 100 means in our culture," Pomerantz said. "It's a century. It's a perfect score on a test. It's a monument."
It's a monument whose origin is left almost solely to the imagination of anyone trying to reconstruct it. Even those who witnessed Chamberlain's milestone can't agree on the most basic details of what happened.
Was his 100-point basket a dunk? A layup? A finger roll? (Depends on who you ask.) Did the game end right then and there, with Chamberlain's 36th field goal in 63 attempts? (No, they finished the game and the Knicks scored four more points as Philadelphia beat New York 169-147.)
Even Wilton Norman Chamberlain himself didn't have it right, telling stories years later of taking a game-day nap at the team hotel (the team didn't stay in a hotel); playing pinball with business manager Ike Richman (Richman wasn't there); and traveling back to Philadelphia on the team bus through Amish country. Actually, Chamberlain had driven back to New York, where he lived, in Richman's Cadillac with Willie Naulls of the Knicks.
"He had places to go and things to do and ladies to see," said Chamberlain's longtime attorney and friend, Sy Goldberg. "He wasn't going to stay around Hershey and eat a chocolate bar."
And the ball; oh my, the ball. Where did it go? Who has the game ball from the most outsized, mystical achievement in basketball history?
"There's only one person who knows," said Harvey Pollack, the legendary statistician and historian who wore many hats the night Chamberlain shattered basketball's sound barrier. "And he's dead: Wilt Chamberlain."
Pollack, who turns 90 a week from Friday, had a courtside seat for Chamberlain's achievement as the game statistician, the Warriors' PR director and reporter for the AP, UPI and Philadelphia Inquirer. "Otherwise," he said by phone Wednesday, "I didn't have any jobs that night."
In this time of multi-billion-dollar TV contracts, global media coverage and yes, Linsanity, it's worth noting that on March 2, 1962, an NBA game involving the sport's most dominant figure barely warranted news coverage. Even when the Warriors and Knicks met again two days later at Madison Square Garden in New York, only 9,346 fans showed up -- about half the Garden's capacity.
The game, and the nation, were paused between eras. Two years before the Civil Rights Act would pass, black players in the NBA believed there was an unwritten quota of four blacks per team.
"The NBA was bush league in those days," said Joe Ruklick, a 6-foot-9 backup from Northwestern who, at 23, threw the pass that set up Chamberlain's historic basket. "We washed our own uniforms. My wife washed my uniform, which wasn't necessary a lot. But Wilt used to put his uniform in a bag and forget to wash it for a half-dozen games. We traveled coach. Meal money was $8 a day. Some guys used to carry their lunch."
What happened after Ruklick dumped the ball down to Chamberlain for his 99th and 100th points -- after two subsequent misses by the Big Dipper and two offensive rebounds by Ted "Lucky" Luckenbill, according to Campbell's play-by-play -- is as much a part of the lore as the achievement itself.
"Everyone has their story," Pomerantz said. "And they tell it with complete conviction."
There is the story of Kerry Ryman, the 14-year-old son of a chocolate factory worker who claimed to have rushed the court and stolen the game ball from Chamberlain after the historic basket. He'd sneaked into the arena that night with some friends to see Chamberlain play.
"Wilt bounces ball, the kid grabs it, and in this unplanned, Huck Finn kind of act, he starts running," Pomerantz said. "He starts bounding up the steps. He knew how to get into the arena, and he knew how to get out. Ryman runs out into the night with the ball in his hands."
Nearly 40 years later, months after Chamberlain's death in 1999 at age 63, Ryman surfaced and put the ball up for auction. It initially fetched $551,844, until Pollack came forward to dispute its authenticity.
"This is what happened," Pollack said. "When the referee brought the ball to me, I said, 'Why are you taking this ball out of this game?' Willie Smith was the referee, who's now dead, and he said, 'I think we ought to put this ball in the Hall of Fame.' I said, 'Good idea.' And he said, 'Do you have another ball to replace it?'"
In those days, the home team was responsible for bringing the balls, which Pollack kept in a bag between his feet at the press table.
"So anyway," he said, "I took a ball out of that bag and gave the ball to the referee and he bounced it a couple of times, said, 'Sounds all right to me.'"
As far as Pollack was concerned, that was the end of that. He'd given the ball Chamberlain had used to score 100 points to ballboy Jeff Millman, who'd put it in Chamberlain's equipment bag. Later, in the bedlam of the locker room, the ball was passed around for Chamberlain and his teammates to sign. It was then that Pollack wrote "100" on a piece of paper and had Chamberlain pose for the iconic still photo taken by wire service photographer Paul Vathis, who'd brought his son to the game but thankfully had his camera in the trunk of his car.
The question was, what ball did Ryman claim to have all those years later?
"It must have been the second ball," Pollack said.
After the first auction was canceled, Ryman's ball later fetched $67,791 because its authenticity could not be verified. What happened to the ball that the referee had given to Pollack? The one Pollack said was transported back to the Warriors' offices in Philadelphia and put on display until the team was sold and moved to the Bay Area after that season? To this day, Pollack suspects that Chamberlain came to the office and took the ball, but he can't know for sure.
"I have no idea, nor does anyone else," said Pollack, who went to work for the 76ers after the Warriors were sold. "Everyone who could confirm that Wilt came in to get it is dead."
Chamberlain's former teammate, Al Attles -- who has the distinction of going 8-for-8 from the field as the Warriors' second-highest scorer with 17 points in the 100-point game -- later told Pollack that he had the ball. But when Pollack quizzed Attles about which commissioner's signature was imprinted on its skin, it turned out to be that of Walter Kennedy, who didn't become commissioner until 1967.
"You've got a fake ball," Pollack said he told Attles on the phone.
So then what ball did Ruklick have? Yes, Ruklick claims to have handled the historic game ball, too. The man who'd passed to Chamberlain for the historic basket -- "I'm a walking trivia question," he said -- said he was given the 100-point ball by a member of the Knicks.
"I took it off the floor from a New York guy and put it in Wilt's equipment bag," Ruklick said. "I did what Wilt told me to do. And Wilt gave it to Al Attles."
Over the years, Pollack and Ruklick, now 73 and living in the Chicago suburbs, have publicly feuded about the details of that night. They disagree about almost everything, including whether Chamberlain really told Ruklick years later that the ball had been given to a couple in the Midwest -- a couple that has never come forward or been identified. The feud boiled over in January when both attended the annual Philadelphia Sports Writers Association Banquet.
"He said, 'Ruklick, I'm gonna make a liar of you yet,'" Ruklick said. "Those were his exact words. I looked at him and I said, 'Harvey, I'll bet you my house against yours and I'll pay for the lie detector test.' ... He hasn't taken me up on the offer yet."
Ruklick, who threw the pass, and Pollack, who has charted hundreds of thousands of NBA plays over the years, can't even agree on how Chamberlain put the ball in the basket when he reached 100. Campbell called it a "Dipper Dunk" on the air. Ruklick remembers it differently.
"He did not dunk it," Ruklick said. "He finger-rolled it in. And he did that because he had class. He wasn't going to hot dog or showboat or show up the guy who was guarding him, who was Cleveland Buckner."
"Come on now," Pollack said. "What about the other 98 points? Did he show anybody up then? If I wasn't around, maybe somebody would believe him. It was definitely a dunk; and as far as I'm concerned, an emphatic dunk."
Such a shot today would be replayed infinitely from multiple angles on SportsCenter and on your iPad, leaving no doubt. And this is part of the charm and beauty of the moment. Even Campbell, who'd called it a dunk on the air, remembers it as a layup now.
"It wasn't a dunk," Campbell said. "That's how I remember the shot, too."
All these unanswered questions. All these pieces that don't fit.
"I suppose I didn't see them as missing pieces," Pomerantz said. "I didn't see them as questions. I saw them as questions with multiple answers. ... What matters most is that it matters."
Adding to the mythology of Chamberlain's accomplishment, the Philadelphia 76ers will play the Golden State Warriors Friday night in Philadelphia -- 50 years to the day. Attles, traveling with the Warriors all week, will be there. So will Pollack. Campbell, who is caring for his ill wife, hopes to be there, too.
"I'm glad he didn't get another basket," Attles said. "That's a magic number to me, one that you'll always remember."
It was one that Chamberlain always remembered, but rarely bragged about. "I'm not sure he felt this was the greatest accomplishment of his life," Goldberg said on the phone from Los Angeles. "It was just kind of a round number that meant something. ... Wilt was a very proud kind of guy, and I think he assumed he could do anything he wanted to do and it wasn't a big deal. If he wanted to score 100 points, he was going to score 100 points."
And do it in a way, and at a time, that would change the game forever.
"This was a hyperbolic announcement of the ascendancy of the black athlete in pro basketball," Pomerantz said. "The sound you heard was the shattering of the quota. It was a game that had one foot in the old days -- there were still some set shooters in this game -- and one foot in our day. And that foot was Wilt Chamberlain's."
Fifty years later, the imprint is still larger than life.