The National Basketball Association (NBA) of today is about silly and trivial matters, such as LeBron James’ dunks before a game and the Harlem Shake. The NBA has loosened rules and the game experience package includes people like actor Jack Nicholson and film director Spike Lee and a whole bunch of A-list celebrities to make sure it is entertainment first and an athletic event second. But, the NBA existed well before the advent of ESPN and great athletic feats took place a half century ago.
It may come as a shock to younger NBA fans, but the recently turned 50-year-old Michael Jordan was not the first scoring machine in NBA history. In fact, Jordan does not even have a spot in the top five places for most points in a game, nor does he have any ranking in the top four slots for most points per game in a season.
He is close, but Wilt Chamberlain established records in the 1960s that have not been challenged. In 1961-62, the Philadelphia Warriors center averaged 50.4 per game. It was during that season on March 2, 1962 that the Big Dipper did something no one has ever done in an NBA game. Chamberlain scored 100 points as the Warriors beat the New York Knicks 169-147 in a neutral court game in Hershey, Pa. Officially, only 4,124 people were in attendance.
There was no television or cable network to record history and no radio reporters to get post-game reactions. Only some sportswriters were there to record it. In fact, the local Hershey-Harrisburg, Pa., television stations did not even bother to send a film crew or a reporter to the arena.
Chamberlain made 36 of 63 shots from the floor that night and was a remarkable 28 of 32 from the free throw line. Chamberlain was not a good foul shooter. In his career he made about 51 percent of his foul shots. To this day, Chamberlain remains the NBA’s all-time leader in foul shots attempted with 11,862. Teams fouled him thinking it was better to let him try and score from the line than the field.
“We were playing the game of basketball,” Chamberlain later said. “I was averaging 50 points a game that year, so it was normal for me to score a lot of points. That was the normal way for us to play that year. So it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. It was only when they decided that they did not want me to score more points that my team decided to do just the opposite.”
The “opposite” was to get the ball into Chamberlain who was being guarded by Darrell Imhoff.
Chamberlain scored 23 in the first, had 10 rebounds and was 9-9 from the foul line. In the second period, he scored 18. In the third period, Wilt scored 28 and added six rebounds and in the final stanza, Chamberlain was 12 of 21 from the floor and made 7-10 from the foul line for 31 points. Chamberlain pulled down 25 rebounds and also had two assists.
“It was a tremendous feat and I don’t think it will ever be duplicated again,” said Johnny Green, the Knicks’ starting forward. “We were there trying to prevent Wilt from scoring as many points as he did.”
Green’s teammate Richie Guerin, who led the Knicks that night with 39 points, claimed for years that the Warriors were more intent to give the ball to Wilt than play basketball. Guerin’s comments have upset Chamberlain for many years.
Alvin Attles was the shooting guard on that Warrior team. He and Chamberlain combined to score 117, the record for the most points by two teammates. Attles also said Guerin was wrong.
“The most important thing about that game was we won, and two, Wilt scored the 100,” Attles explained. “And if you look at the box score, everybody got their scoring average for the year. Tom Meschery got 16, Paul Arizin got 16. Only Guy Rodgers didn’t hit for his average (actually Rogers scored 11, his average was 8 points per game). There were a lot of points scored. We scored 167 points, so we got our averages.”
Chamberlain broke the old mark of 78 that he set three months earlier in a triple overtime game against Los Angeles. Wilt also scored 73 against the Chicago Packers on January 13, 1962.
“I just think they started to look for him more by the end of the third quarter and into the fourth,” Green recalled. “He was really scoring. We went into the game playing the Warriors but we ended up playing Wilt because he was the real warrior.”
Chamberlain said he knew he was on course to score 100 points. The fans rooted for him to hit the century mark and the 99th and 100th points came with 46 seconds left when he received a pass from Joe Ruklick, which assured him of a spot in basketball history.
Chamberlain set records in points scored with 100; most field goals attempted in a half with 37 in the second half; most field goals attempted with 63 and the most field goals attempted in a quarter with 21 in the final period. He set records for most field goals made with 36, the most field goals in a half with 22, and most points in a half at 59.
That season he set records in most field goals for a season with 1,597. Chamberlain had 45 games with 50 or more points (in an 80 game season) and twice had 14-game streaks of 40 or more. Jordan once scored 40 or more points in nine straight games. Between October 19, 1961 and January 19, 1963, Chamberlain scored 20 or more points in 126 straight games, an NBA record.
Still, the Warriors were only 49-31 that year and were knocked out of the playoffs by Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and the rest of the Boston Celtics in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Final. Boston didn’t have the ultimate scorer like Wilt and Wilt didn’t have the cast of Hall of Famers around him like the Celtics.
Despite Chamberlain’s accomplishments the Philadelphia Warriors never won an NBA title. The Philadelphia Warriors were sold to San Francisco investors for $850,000 a few months later and Philadelphia went without an NBA team in 1962-63. The NBA didn’t have a national TV contract either in 1962-63. But Wilt did score 100 one night back in an era when the NBA was at best a mom-and-pop-shop operation.