Wilt Chamberlain: Human and Superhuman
There’s never been anyone like him. He hated the nickname “Wilt the Stilt” because it reminded him of a big crane standing in a pool of water. He preferred “the Big Dipper,” more luminous, more other-worldly.
If you define athleticism as a combination of size, speed, strength and agility, the young Dipper, a decathlete and basketball star who at full speed covered nearly eight feet of hardwood with each elongated stride, might have been the greatest pure athlete of the 20th century, there with Jim Thorpe, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown.
Wilt’s 100-point game in Hershey stands among the most famous achievements in sports history. But during my research for WILT, 1962, I discovered that hardly anyone really knew anything about it.
Its mystique was born of its isolation. Few saw the game. It was not televised. No New York sportswriters showed up with the Knicks in last place and the NBA regular season just five games from completion. There were only 4,124 paying customers at the Hershey Sports Arena that night, and even that number might have been inflated. Eddie Gottlieb, the Warriors lovable owner, sometimes embellished his crowd counts. Though 4,124 became the official crowd total in Hershey, it did not include a handful of local Hershey boys who snuck into the arena.
At halftime, the p.a. announcer Dave Zinkoff, in a fan give-away, handed out New Phillies Cheroots cigars and Formost salamis. And he called out on the p.a. (more than once) during the game, “Diii-pppeer Duuunk, Chaaaam-ber-laaaiinn!!!” When Wilt scored on a Dipper Dunk with 46 seconds remaining to reach 100, the kids of Hershey rushed out to the court to meet the conquering hero, much as the French once rushed out to the field to greet the arriving Lindbergh.
It was all quite a show. The “100″ stayed in people’s minds. But the event itself soon was forgotten.
Decades later, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game seemed like a sunken galleon, waiting to be recovered.
To understand the meaning and significance of what happened that long-ago night in Hershey, we must first understand the era, the league and the man.
In spring 1962, John Kennedy and Wilt’s good friend — Nikita Khrushchev — were locked in a Cold War faceoff over the issue of nuclear testing. Only ten days before Wilt’s big night, John Glenn blasted into space and returned home with a classic line: “I don’t know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets.” In Philadelphia, 400 African-American ministers led their congregations in a boycott against the Tasty Baking Company, Sunoco and Gulf Oil until more black employees at those companies were hired to better jobs. The Freedom Rides rolled across the South, a region whose major athletic conferences had yet to desegregate. In the nation’s capital, the Washington Redskins, the last NFL team to integrate, finally had signed their first black player, though he had not yet played.
The simmering racial tensions in the South would bubble to the surface later that fall. At Ole Miss, James Meredith had to be escorted by federal marshals armed with tear gas and guns to become that school’s first black student. Rioting erupted and two people were left dead.
And don’t mistake the NBA of that year for today’s sleek league of glamour and glitz. It was perceived by many sportswriters as less than the college game. Some NBA players still smoked cigarettes, even at halftime; they washed their own uniforms in hotel room sinks. That season, Wilt’s Philadelphia Warriors played one game in a high school gym in Indiana. The NBA tried to develop new fans by playing a number of games outside of big cities, in places with big arenas, such as Hershey.
It was still largely a white man’s enclave. In 1962, two-thirds of the NBA’s players were white. The league’s black players were certain that a quota existed that limited their numbers. Such prejudice was systemic then in American life. In 1958, the St. Louis Hawks — playing in the NBA’s southernmost town -– became the last league champion with a roster entirely made up of white players.
Today, the NBA has 30 teams, but in 1961-62 it had only nine — and just one (the Los Angeles Lakers) west of St. Louis.
Most of America’s leading sports columnists in 1962, The New York Times’ Red Smith and Shirley Povich of The Washington Post, among them, cared little for pro basketball. They preferred baseball, football, horse racing, boxing — anything but the NBA. Stanley Woodward, the legendary sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune, said of basketball: “I have strong reservations, about the masculinity of any man who plays the game in short pants.”
In 1962, the NBA had one foot stepping into the future, the other dragging in the past. Some of the old-style set shooters remained, using a one- or two-handed shot taken without their feet leaving the floor, a shooting style that dated to the game’s origins in the late 1890s.
And then there was Wilt. Tall, fast, athletically gifted, he transformed the geometry of his sport. He took a feet-on-the-floor horizontal game above the rim, and made it his.
He was the Babe Ruth of his sport. As Ruth electrified baseball with the home run as the sport moved from the dead ball era to the live ball era during the 1920s, Chamberlain electrified pro basketball in the early 1960s with his scoring and Dipper Dunk.
Of course the two men — The Babe and The Dipper — shared other qualities as well. Both kept their eyes on pretty women in the grandstands. A married man, Ruth could be loud and coarse, once telling his teammates, “You should have seen this dame I was with last night. What a body! Not a blemish on it.”
The bachelor Chamberlain was quieter and more careful about his liaisons in the winter of 1962.
“That blonde sitting underneath the basket,” he whispered to a Philadelphia Warriors official sitting at the scorer’s table during one game. The Dipper raised a brow and said, “Get her number for me.”