Chamberlain was larger than life -- before, after his 100-point feat
Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game was perhaps not even his greatest record
Chamberlain was dubbed the greatest player ever before his first college game
Said Philadelphia Warriors coach Frank McGuire: 'Wilt has been superhuman'
One of the most striking things I have ever seen happen was when Wilt Chamberlain came back to Kansas for the first time in 40 years. Nobody seemed to know exactly why Chamberlain had not come back to the school where he played basketball (and high-jumped for the track team and played rock and roll as a college radio disc jockey). There were rumors of bitterness. There were whispers of racial taunts that had never quieted in his mind. There was a sense -- one that Wilt himself sometimes confirmed -- that he had never quite gotten over the Jayhawks' triple-overtime loss to North Carolina in the 1957 national championship game.
"It was a devastating thing for me," he said to the crowd on the day in 1998 the school retired his jersey, less than two years before his death. "I felt like I let the University of Kansas down and my teammates down."
Then, that may not have been it either. Chamberlain shrugged when asked why it had been so long. Hey, he had been busy being Wilt Chamberlain. He walked around the campus while wearing his Kansas letter jacket. He cried now and then. He seemed genuinely moved to come back to the place where had been young, to the part of his life that happened before he joined the Harlem Globetrotters, before he scored 100 points in a game, before he and Bill Russell staged their own remake of Clash of the Titans, before he became an American icon, before ...
And the striking thing to me was a small thing. It happened when Chamberlain shook hands with the Kansas players. One of those players was senior center Eric Chenowith. Now, Chenowith was listed at 7-foot-1, the same height as Chamberlain in his playing days. Chenowith probably weighed about 270 pounds, about the same weight as Chamberlain in his playing days. Chenowith was wearing his uniform, his basketball shoes and he was young. Chamberlain wore that red and gold jacket, black pants, a baseball cap and he was 61.
And, as they shook hands it was clear: Chamberlain was a much, much, much larger man.
I don't mean that as some literary device. I mean physically. Chamberlain towered over Chenowith. It was like some kind of optical illusion. There was something about Chamberlain that contradicted scales and height charts. There was something about the way that Chamberlain carried himself that made him look, really look, larger than life.
Of all the amazing Wilt Chamberlain numbers -- the season he averaged 50 points, the season he averaged 27 rebounds, the season he decided to lead the league in assists and then LED THE LEAGUE IN ASSISTS, that night exactly 48 years ago in Hershey, Pa., when he scored 100 points -- my favorite is this: In the 1961-62 season, Chamberlain averaged 48.5 minutes per game. An NBA game, then as now, is 48 minutes. Chamberlain had not rested the entire season.
Another legend, Frank McGuire, was the coach of that team. McGuire and Chamberlain had a history. It was McGuire who coached the North Carolina team that beat Chamberlain and Kansas in '57. Then McGuire became coach of the Philadelphia Warriors for one season. It was Wilt's magical season -- at least by the numbers.
"The first hour I coached Chamberlain, I asked him how much he wanted to play," McGuire told me 20 years ago. "He said -- and I'll never forget this -- 'If you take me out, I'm sitting next to you. I don't rebound. I don't score.' "
And so, McGuire never took Wilt out of a game. That was the year Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points. He averaged 25.7 rebounds. He took a staggering 3,159 shots that year, by far the most in NBA history. It is 800 more shots than any other player ever dared take in a season*.
*Chamberlain has the top four seasons when it comes to shots taken -- then there's Charlie Scott, who, in the 1971-72 season, took 2,305 shots and averaged 33.4 points. Only 14 players in NBA history have taken even 2,000 shots in a season. Michael Jordan did it twice, Kobe Bryant once, Pete Maravich once.
McGuire's gift -- people always said -- was his ability to inspire confidence in people. Dean Smith would talk about how he loved golfing with McGuire because those were the days he made 8-foot putts. Lots of people said stuff like that. And McGuire made Chamberlain feel limitless. It's not that Chamberlain ever lacked for confidence -- after all, there was a story in the Saturday Evening Post calling him the greatest basketball player who ever lived. And that came out before Chamberlain played his first college game. But something about that combination -- the brilliance of Wilt Chamberlain and the confidence of Frank McGuire -- led to something magical.
Chamberlain was on a scoring surge leading into the 100-point game. Well, that whole season was a scoring surge, but Chamberlain had been especially hot coming in. He had been held to just 26 points in a loss to the Celtics eight days before the 100-point night, and nobody was happy about it. "Feed Wilt," McGuire would remember telling his team, and the next night Chamberlain scored 67 points in a loss to the Knicks. Two days later, he scored 65 in a Philadelphia victory over St. Louis. And the night after that, he scored 61 as the Warriors beat the Chicago Packers.
That led to the night in Hershey on March 2, 1962. Chamberlain would often say that he started thinking it was a magical night when he made nine consecutive free throws -- Chamberlain was, of course, a notoriously bad free-throw shooter his entire career*. He made those nine free throws in a row, and it all felt right. He made 28-of-32 free throws that day, which was a big reason he was able to score 100. His teammates kept feeding him and feeding him. The crowd -- if you can call the 4,124 or so people in the stands that day a crowd -- rushed the court before the game even ended.
*Chamberlain shot 54 percent from the field in his career and just 51 percent from the free-throw line. Another of my favorite Chamberlain statistics is that his last two seasons, he shot 65 percent and 73 percent from the field. And from the line? He shot 42 and 51 percent. There really was never anyone like him.
It is one of those perfect things in sports that Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game. I mean that in the same way that I think it is perfect that Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game, that Babe Ruth hit the called-shot home run, that Jim Brown never missed a game for injury, that Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46, that Reggie Jackson hit the three home runs in a World Series. It is perfect because, in a single sentence, you can capture for children and people who were not there the essence of something large.
Q: Who was Wilt Chamberlain?
A: He was the guy who scored ONE HUNDRED POINTS in a game.
That does not tell you who Wilt Chamberlain was, of course. It does not tell you about all his highs and lows, about his triumphs and flaws, about his famous boast of bedding 20,000 women or the pain that boast cost him, about his pride or joy or his torment. Chamberlain was a complicated man.
But it does tell you something. One hundred points. Two quotes come to mind. One is from McGuire, who was asked after that game if Chamberlain's one-man-game act actually hurt the team. "Wilt has been superhuman," McGuire said. "I hate to think where we'd be without him, with just a mere human being in his place."
The other is from Chamberlain himself. Someone asked him at Kansas that day he came back if this ranked as the best day in his life. Chamberlain smirked just a little bit -- the person asking clearly did not appreciate what a life Chamberlain had lived. But Wilt did not ignore the question. He simply said: "I've had a lot of great days. But this wasn't bad. It sure wasn't bad, my man."
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