There may be no more mythically intimidating player in the history of basketball than Wilt Chamberlain. And 1962 was the year of his most famed achievement, the 100 point game. That’s at the heart of a new book by Gary Pomerantz, who looks at Wilt in that year and in the context of those times. Scott Thompson â€” who posters here know as Gatinho, one of the most insightful and regular commenters on this site â€” read the book while on vacation and has written a review. (Why he was reading a book while in Brazil is another question for another day.) I’m proud to post it here, and I think it’s safe to say he recommends it.
“The Hershey Sports Arena had aged like Dorian Gray: not at all…” When reading a sports book, an avid reader of many genres’ (or an English teacher’s) first thoughts as they begin are, “Is this going to be a sports novel that takes a stab at the literary or a piece of literature that happens to be about sports.” Pomerantz strikes a balance melding story-telling with poignant historical and social insights, sweetened with a load of head scratching Wilt stats some of which you just can’t get your head around (55 rebounds in a game against Bill Russell, allegedly a better rebounder).
In the legendary 100-point game, Wilt handled the ball 125 times, had 63 shots, 32 free throws, 25 rebounds, and played all 48 minutes. The previous record was 73 points (also WiltÂ´s) in triple overtime. No player has gone over 75 since that night and the last player who came close in recent history was David Robinson with 71 and he had the help of the Clippers. Only four players have broken 70: David Thompson, Wilt, Robinson, and the original Laker gunner, Elgin Baylor.
Wilt,1962, by Gary Pomerantz, was reflective of the format that Jane Leavy used in her 2003 book “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” chronicling KoufaxÂ´s perfect game set against the backdrop of the Watts riots. Alternating chapters, she moved from a pitch by pitch recount of the Game to chapters about Koufax and his social relevance as an icon of the Jewish Community. Alternating between insights into the characters involved in this John Henry style achievement and a minute by minute recap of the contest, Pomerantz mimics this style in his painstakingly researched novel analyzing “The Night of 100 points and the Dawn of a New Era.”
In arguing about the ability of a Shaq against a Wilt or Bill Russell, I always griped that, “Wilt was playing against a league that was on average 5 to 6 inches shorter than it is today.” Thus diminishing the efforts of Wilt with visions of an adult playing against a child on an 8 foot rim. But Pomerantz’s account lifted away those misconceptions and showed what a workman-like, lunch pail and hard hat effort this really was. Had he not missed the lay up, he would have scored the 99th and 100th points on a steal of the inbounds pass. Elgin Baylor, who predicted that Wilt would score a hundred in an interview with Chick Hearn just a month before he did, and Jerry West, whose 63 that year (24 in the third quarter, a Laker record) against the same pathetic Knick team that Wilt got historic on, are mentioned prominently in the book as the only two players of the time who could be mentioned in the same conversations about scoring as Wilt.
Laker fans will also recognize Dipperisms (Pomerantz calls him the Dipper throughout the book being as that was what Wilt preferred â€” he hated “The Stilt”) like “my boom-boom move” and “no one roots for Goliath” as having been “bitten” by one 340 pound South Beach resident.
Finally, Pomerantz unveils the NBAÂ´s unwritten racial code of the time concerning African-American players and their implicit playing restrictions: “One at home, two on the road, and three if you are losing.” He places that into the context of the present NBA and its continuing difficulty of appealing to middle America. Interestingly, the criticism of the NBA then was that they were scoring too many points and that the average American Joe couldn’t relate to the “glandular goons” who were taking over the game. Sadly, to this day the same types of criticisms exist, dripping with their thinly veiled racial undertones,(lack of fundamentals, a one on one game, the playground/Spostscenter highlight reel influence) as echoes of the NBAÂ´s past and the shift caused by The Dipper’s seminal performance penetrate the modern game.
If you want to check out the box score from Wilt’s big game, here it is.