After 50 years, the record still stands and it's a nice round number.
On March 2, 1962 Wilt Chamberlain scored more points than anyone has in an NBA basketball game. Playing for the Philadelphia Warriors, he dropped a 100-point bomb on the New York Knicks in a 162-147 Warriors' win.
Only about 4,000 fans saw the game, which was played in Hershey, Pennsylvania. There was no TV and the only working photographer left after the first quarter.
Gary Pomerantz, author of "Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era," told Here & Now's Robin Young that, "Wilt's 100 point game stands like a monument or even taller as the statistical Everest of American sports."
Book Excerpt: 'WILT, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era'
By: Gary Pomerantz
In the history of professional team sports in America, there is no statistical equal of the Dipper’s hundred-point game, no other individual accomplishment in a single game so remarkable and outsized. Such a declarative statement is possible because of the way basketball is played. Chamberlain that night handled the ball more than 125 times, including his sixty-three shots from the floor, thirty-two free throws, and twenty-five rebounds. Extended over forty-eight minutes of play, the Dipper’s performance became a marathon of excellence that not only broke the existing scoring record in regulation (which was, of course, his own record), it exceeded it by twenty-seven points—and that year only six other NBA players averaged 27 point a game.
Baseball allows for moments of greatness, but not for sustained effort that builds mountainous numbers in a single game; certainly, no batter will hit ten home runs one night, no pitcher will have forty strikeouts. Football aficionados celebrated a Gale Sayers game in December of 1965 when, in a 61-20 Chicago Bears victory over San Francisco on a quagmire at Wrigley Field, he rushed for four touchdowns, caught a touchdown pass, and returned a punt eighty-five yards for another touchdown—six touchdowns on 336 all-purpose yards.
But Sayers touched the ball only sixteen times that day, and as brilliant a performance as his was—Bears owner George Halas, who founded the pro game a half century before, called it the greatest individual effort he ever saw—it had none of the unimaginable aspects of Chamberlain’s. Indeed, Sayers’s all-purpose yardage total has been exceeded several times, and other players have scored six touchdowns in a game.
In professional basketball, great scorers have come and gone—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson—but in the forty-three years since the hundred-point game no player has approached the Dipper or, for that matter, even reached seventy-five points. Wilt Chamberlain’s hundred-point night stands like a statistical Everest over the landscape of American sports.
It’s impossible to know in sports when or where the unforgettable moment will happen. That’s the beauty of it. It can be a place or a time. It can be a personality or a startling achievement.
We remember Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in the 1932 World Series in Chicago because of the sheer force of the Babe’s personality—not to mention the bluster and arrogance of the act—and because, in the darkness of the Depression, America needed heroes. Never mind that we still can’t be certain if the Babe really pointed to the center field bleachers in Wrigley Field to show the hecklers in the Cubs dugout where he intended to hit his home run.
We remember Jesse Owens’s performance in the 1936 Berlin Olympics because of its social and political significance. Owens, an African-American sprinter and jumper, won four gold medals to challenge the racial notions of the Aryan supremacist watching that day from a box seat—Adolph Hitler.
Beyond its Chocolate Town charm, Chamberlain’s hundred-point game carried deeper import. Shot like a flare into the sky, it signaled that the pro game had changed in both the way it would be played and the men who would play it. It would be a game with a higher metabolism performed now at a greater speed, from in close and above the rim, by players who were no longer bound by gravity. The Dipper proved irrefutably that you could be a remarkable athlete even if you were seven feet tall or taller. Athletes had long been taught to be quiet and humble. Not the Dipper. He was fast becoming the most striking symbol of basketball’s new age of self-expression and egotism—a development slightly ahead of the overall popular culture—and his hundred-point game gave him an imprimatur to continue being, boldly and unashamedly, the Dipper.
His hundred-point game was also a hyperbolic announcement of the ascendency of the black superstar in professional basketball. A wave of black athletes had been achieving superstardom in other professional sports for more than a decade: Jackie Robinson had cleared the baseball path for Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and others. Jim Brown was annihilating pro football’s top defenses, while the young heavyweight Cassius Clay, with his father proclaiming, “He’s the next Joe Louis!” set his sights, eight months hence, on Archie Moore and then later the big ugly bear, Sonny Liston. In 1958-59, the year before the Dipper had broken into the league, Elgin Baylor rated as the only black player among the NBA’s top ten scorers; now, in 1961-62, there were five scoring leaders who were black, and by the later Sixties there would be seven. The hundred-point game was a revolutionary act—if not by intention then by effect—that announced the NBA was a white man’s enclave no more. Against the Knickerbockers in Hershey, the Dipper symbolically blew to smithereens the NBA owners’ arbitrary quota that limited the number of black players, a tacit understanding that was systemic in America (the joke among NBA writers was, “You can start only one black player at home, two on the road, and three if you need to win”).
At the time of his hundred-point game, Chamberlain was twenty-five years old, still in the process of becoming, though already at the height of his considerable athletic powers. His standing reach was nine feet, seven inches, his arm span eighty-nine inches. He’d run the 440 in forty-nine seconds, leaped nearly twenty-three feet in the broad jump, and put the shot more than fifty-three feet. He could clean and jerk 375 pounds and dead-lift 625 pounds. If athleticism may be defined exclusively as a combination of size, strength, speed, and agility, then the young Wilt Chamberlain, at seven-foot-one, 260 pounds, might have been the twentieth century’s greatest pure athlete. He would transform his sport, and its geometry, more than anyone ever did: He led the movement that took a horizontal game and made it vertical.
Already, he was a celebrated individualist, a bachelor with enormous cravings, an intergalactic nickname, and all of the trappings of new money. He had a fancy car, a racehorse (Spooky Cadet), apartments on both coasts, and a famous Harlem nightclub—where Malcolm X had served as a teenaged waiter—that now bore the name Big Wilt’s Smalls Paradise. The Warriors’ owner, Eddie Gottlieb, worked hard to keep Chamberlain happy. As part of their agreement, Gotty rented the Dipper a gorgeous three-bedroom apartment at the Hopkinson House, a prestigious new high-rise. It overlooked Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers ratified America’s defining documents, and was near the nation’s first Executive Mansion where George and Martha Washington lived during the 1790s (with eight negro slaves). There, the Dipper roomed with Vince Miller, whom he had known since third grade, his deepest and most enduring boyhood friendship. Miller was his teammate at Overbrook High and even before at Shoemaker Junior High where they wore red-white-and-blue socks pulled up nearly to the knees. That’s when he began using rubber bands to keep them in place. The Dipper wore spare rubber bands on his wrists throughout his NBA career to remind him of those early friendships, the ones that preceded the arrival of groupies and sychophants.
Excerpt from “WILT, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era”, by Gary Pomerantz (Crown, 2005)
- Gary Pomerantz, author of "Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era"
This segment aired on March 2, 2012.