Out in Ohio, inside the house with a big green wreath on the screen front door, the old man clears his throat and bends his back into a plush recliner near the porcelain angels his wife has placed on the TV stand. His eyes are a pale and watery blue.
"In some ways, I'm glad it happened to me, and some ways I wish it hadn't happened at all," he says, his voice creaking. "Ahh, it seems like a fairy tale. It was so long ago, and it.... Ahh, it still follows me everywhere." He didn't even score the points. But he was the mastermind behind them. His hands fidget on the armrests of the chair. He looks down, squints, raises his head halfway up again. "What was that?" he asks. He is 90 years old. His wife passes through the doorway, holding a cane. When he gave up the game in the late '50s, he made his money on a root beer stand called Newt Oliver's Frostop, a little place in Springfield, Ohio, with a giant plastic mug of root beer on the roof. The Frostop sold 25,000 gallons of root beer per season. It sold root beer floats for 25 cents and slaw for 25 cents and a Big Daddy Basket for 89 cents and grilled-cheese sandwiches for 35 cents, money that Newt invested in the stock market.
Newt's Rio Grande team, led by Bevo Francis, went 39--0 in 1952--53. The Redmen played military teams, tech schools and some four-year universities you've never heard of. Bevo averaged 50.1 points. No one could guard his turnaround jump shot. When other teams came to the Hog Pen, they would laugh at the condition of the gym—the leaking roof and the black tile floor, those folding chairs set up against the sides of the court—and "call us Podunk," Newt says. Bevo and his teammates would glower at the players from the other team, sizing them up, "and then we would beat their ass," the old man says. "Haw, haw, haw. Sometimes opposing coaches wouldn't even shake our hands afterward. I didn't care. Haw, haw, haw."
When asked to remember if he really wanted Bevo to get 100 points, Newt's eyes sparkle, and in an outburst he says, "Oh, yeah, we did! We knew if he got 100, we would receive national acclaim. And we would be on our way. And we certainly were. Oh, yeah, we knew we were going to beat those teams. Get him the ball, let him score, we're going to win anyway." Newt once called an AP writer and said, "I'll have him score 100 for you."
"I was never a grandstanding player," Bevo, a quiet man, a humble man, admitted in a documentary about the team called They Sure Could Play the Game. "I went out there to play the game and win. That made me feel I was free. Whenever I was out on the floor, I couldn't tell you if there was 10 people or 10,000 people."
Bevo scored 116 points against Ashland (Ky.) Junior College in January 1953, but that March the National Association of Basketball Coaches endorsed a new NCAA rule that accepted only scoring records from games between four-year colleges, and it applied the rule retroactively. So 116, and Bevo's 50.1 average and many of his other numbers, including 69 and 72 and 76, simply wouldn't count. "That made me so bitter," Bevo said. "I told Newt, 'Stiffen the schedule up.' "
And so Newt did. Rio played every one of its 28 games in 1953--54 on the road. It was a traveling show. The Redmen won 21 and probably would have won more had Bevo not sprained his ankle. They played at Madison Square Garden, where Bevo was so tired from having done interviews all day in New York City that he could hardly play. He broke the Butler Field House scoring record in Indianapolis as Rio Grande beat the Bulldogs, and the student section gave the Redmen a 10-minute standing ovation. They beat Miami and Wake Forest and Creighton, and lost by one to Villanova. Bevo kept scoring, and he got 113 against Hillsdale College in Jackson, Ohio, where people were trying to break the doors down to get in to see him. He hit 37 free throws. You can only wonder how many he'd score today. "One hundred fifty," says his former teammate Wayne Wiseman. But Bevo dropped out of school and played for a traveling team. Then he gave up basketball entirely.
Bevo declined to be interviewed for this story. When reached by phone, he asked, "Why did you wait 58 years?"
Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points for the Warriors against the Knicks in 1962 in Hershey, Pa., and is still the only NBA player ever to do it. The number is synonymous with his name. He held up a piece of paper in the locker room after the game, while still draped in his white uniform, three digits written in marker, one of the enduring pictures in sport. Wilt was, of course, a man who was defined by other numbers as well. "As time goes by," he said, "I feel more and more a part of that 100-point game. It has become my handle, and I've come to realize just what I did."
The only man ever to get really close to Wilt's number was Kobe Bryant, the best player of the past 15 years. In 2006, against the Raptors in Los Angeles, he scored 81, hitting 28 of a mere 46 shots. That year he was playing perhaps the most artistic, and certainly high-scoring, basketball of his life. But 81? "Not even in my dreams," he said then. "It's something that just kind of happened. It's tough to explain. I don't know.... To sit here and say that I grasp what happened tonight, I'd be lying."