Wednesday, March 2, 2011

March 2, 1962: 100

HERSHEY, Pa. - There was an overwhelming smell of chocolate hanging in the air that night, which sounds nice until you realize it was a never-ending, inescapable smell. After all, the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, had been built around the chocolate factory. So everywhere smelled like chocolate pretty much all the time. It got old.

Nobody wanted to be there. Not the New York Knicks, not the Philadelphia Warriors, nobody. Wilt Chamberlain definitely didn't want to be there; he was hung over from the night before and almost missed the train to the game, and probably wouldn't have been too upset if he had missed it altogether.

The Warriors were technically the home team in this game, but it didn't feel like home to them. The court was small and run-down, basically a high school gym. If they had their say, they wouldn't have played any games anywhere near Hershey, but they had an agreement with the gym owner; they were allowed to practice at the gym for free as long as they played three home games a year there. This was number three. So off to Hershey they trudged.

Only 4,124 fans went to the game, and many of them were only there to see the exhibition basketball game between the NFL's Eagles and Colts. The main event that followed, the regular-season NBA game between the Warriors and the Knicks, felt like an afterthought.

But then Wilt started scoring.

His shooting from the field was down a bit in the first half, but Chamberlain made up for it with surprising - for him - accuracy from the free-throw line, going 13-for-14 from the line in the first half. He had 41 points in the first two quarters, putting him on track to break his own single-game scoring record of 78, which he set earlier in the season. The Knicks were keeping it relatively close, too, so there was a chance Chamberlain would have to keep trying and could get that record.

Then he scored 28 in the third quarter. From then, it became a matter of not if, but by how many. With 7:51 left in the game, Wilt scored his 79th point of the game, setting the new single-game record. The sparse crowd went nuts, feeling honored to have been a part of something historic when it seemed like the game would be anything but memorable.

Then the fans, the Knicks, and the Warriors all seemed to come to the same realization at the same time: there was still time for him to reach a previously unthinkable number. See, earlier in the year, when Wilt's 78 points had broken Elgin Baylor's single-game record of 71, somebody asked Baylor if he was upset his record was broken. He said no, because it was just a matter of time before Wilt got to 100 in a game. He wasn't the only one who said something to that effect, either, with everybody always mentioning that magic number of 100 in their statements of how high Wilt could hypothetically fly. Suddenly, that didn't seem so hypothetical.

So the fans started yelling at the Warriors to get the ball to Wilt. And the Warriors started passing the ball to Wilt every time down the floor, even if they were passing up open layups to do so. And the Knicks were, bizarrely, fouling anybody on the Warriors who wasn't Wilt, trying to do whatever they could to stop him from getting the ball. And the Warriors were in turn fouling the Knicks every time down just so that they could get the ball back so they could get the ball to Wilt.

In short, the game became a farce. It stopped being about winning or losing and became about one guy getting an individual achievement, and the other team trying to prevent that. But the Knicks, already missing their starting center due to injury, were helpless to stop the onslaught.

With less than a minute to play, Wilt scored on a layup to get to 98 points. When the Warriors got the ball back and drove up court, all five Knicks ignored the ball carrier and surrounded Wilt. He got the pass anyway, but missed the shot. With all the Knicks around Wilt, it was easy for teammate Ted Lukenbill to get the rebound; he passed it right back to Wilt, who missed again. Lukenbill again got the rebound, but this time passed to Joe Ruklick, who had a wide open layup. Not wanting to miss his chance at history, Ruklick saw Wilt break free from his defenders for a moment and threw him a lob pass. Wilt converted the alley-oop - whether he dunked the ball or merely laid it in is still debated - and the fans stormed the court in celebration of the unthinkable milestone.

The farce wasn't over, though. With 46 seconds left on the clock, everybody who had gone to the game was on the floor; it took nine minutes to clear everybody off. In the chaos, Ruklick went to the scorer's table to make sure the scorer saw that he had the assist that led to point number 100. When the game finally restarted, Wilt merely stood at midcourt, his hands on his hips, not wanting to touch the ball. As he said, "100 sounded better than 102."

When the game was over, the joyous Warriors retreated to the locker room. An AP photographer was at the game, but as a fan, not on assignment. He got into the locker room anyway. Seeing the photographer, Warriors PR director Harvey Pollack quickly scribbled the number "100" on a piece of paper and handed it to Chamberlain. The photographer snapped the shot, and the resulting photo has become the iconic photo of Chamberlain.

The 100-point game has come to define Chamberlain as well, for better or for worse. On the plus side, it shows just how dominant he was, the highlight of what was his peak season. On the other hand, it also showed his obsession with numbers, and how that obsession often seemed to take precedence over his team's ambitions.

Today, the 100-point game is rightly viewed as one of the most untouchable record in sports. It's hard to imagine anybody being able to approach it. It's also hard to imagine anybody wanting to.

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