50 years ago Wilt was man of the century
In the final minutes, players on the Philadelphia Warriors frantically were fouling the Knicks as if they were behind by 20 points instead of being way ahead. That was just the sort of night it was in Hershey, Pa., on March 2, 1962. It seemed as if constellations had been shaken, and all together they could not outshine the Big Dipper.
Big Dipper, of course, was the nickname for Wilt Chamberlain, who that night scored 100 points in what still stands as one of the most amazing feats in sports history. Fitting for a man who could cover 8 feet with one stride, he brought pro basketball one huge step forward, and upward.
It all remains hazily mythical because there was hardly any coverage -- the game wasn't televised or filmed, the New York newspapers didn't attend, nor did The Philadelphia Inquirer -- and there were few witnesses (attendance: 4,124).
Chamberlain, who died in 1999, did not embrace it for years because he feared it only fed his reputation as a soloist. Plus, there was a touch of farce at game's end, what with the Warriors fouling the Knicks to keep stopping the clock so Wilt could get more chances and the Knicks fouling other Warriors to keep the ball away from Chamberlain.
But Gary Pomerantz, author of the book "Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era," believes that what happened in the Warriors' 169-147 win 50 years ago Friday still reverberates. "Wilt's game lives in the imagination. It is as big as the imagination," he said. "With all due respect to Jeremy Lin, that is like a carnival comes to town. Wilt was like a meteor exploding into the NBA. He transformed the game."
Other players in that game still were taking two-handed set shots. "He took basketball's feet off the floor," Pomerantz said.
Wilt's 100 made a point with owners, who began seeing African-American players in a new light.
Willie Naulls, 77, the Knicks player with whom Chamberlain shared a car ride back to New York that night (Wilt lived in Manhattan and commuted to Philadelphia), later would write in a church bulletin after becoming a pastor, "Wilt had rung the bell of freedom loud and clear."
Then there was the matter of having witnessed something that had seemed unimaginable. "It was just a pleasure to be a friend of his and to be on the same court," said Al Attles, whose 8-for-8 shooting was totally overlooked. "If five guys play one man, you should get open once in a while," Attles, 75, said with a laugh. "Wilt has taken so many bad raps. He was one of the nicest guys in the world."
Chamberlain's larger-than-life night was composed of small-print details. Pomerantz points out that Knicks center Darrall Imhoff, who has carried the stigma of having allowed 100 points, played only 20 minutes because of foul trouble. And he usually was the backup but had to start because Phil Jordon was ill.
A notoriously poor free- throw shooter, Chamberlain sank 28 of 32 that night, a product either of kismet or of soft rims at Hershey Sports Arena. The Warriors trained in Hershey and played one game a season there in vain hopes of expanding the fan base (the franchise moved to San Francisco three months later).
Richie Guerin scored 39 points for the Knicks. Naulls had 31 to cap a seven-game streak of scoring at least 30 points, a franchise record that stood until last season, when Amar'e Stoudemire ran off a nine-game streak.
All of this seems like yesterday for Harvey Pollack, then the Warriors' public relations director and still a statistical guru for the Philadelphia 76ers. He will be courtside Friday night as the 76ers host the Golden State Warriors. If anyone carried a larger load than Wilt 50 years ago, it was Pollack.
He kept statistics and wrote game stories for the Inquirer, The Associated Press and United Press International. Pollack, who turns 90 next Friday, was the one who encouraged the late Dave Zinkoff, the flamboyant public address announcer, to play up Chamberlain's every point. There was frenzy by the time Zinkoff announced "Dipper Dunk" off a feed from New York native York Larese to reach 98.
Fans stormed the court with 46 seconds left, when Chamberlain, on his 63rd shot, converted a pass from Joe Ruklick. Later, in the locker room, Pollack encountered Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press news photographer Paul Vathis, a spectator at the game who had gone to the car for his camera at halftime.
"He said, 'I don't really have a good picture of what happened here tonight.' I said, 'Something happened here tonight?' '' Pollack said the other day from the 76ers' office. Then he recalled borrowing a piece of paper, scribbling the figure "100" and handing it to Wilt to pose for the signature image of a night that will live forever.