Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era

Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era

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by Gary M. Pomerantz

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On the night of March 2, 1962, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, right up the street from the chocolate factory, Wilt Chamberlain, a young and striking athlete celebrated as the Big Dipper, scored one hundred points in a game against the New York Knickerbockers.

As historic and revolutionary as the achievement was, it remains shrouded in myth. The game was not… See more details below


On the night of March 2, 1962, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, right up the street from the chocolate factory, Wilt Chamberlain, a young and striking athlete celebrated as the Big Dipper, scored one hundred points in a game against the New York Knickerbockers.

As historic and revolutionary as the achievement was, it remains shrouded in myth. The game was not televised; no New York sportswriters showed up; and a fourteen-year-old local boy ran onto the court when Chamberlain scored his hundredth point, shook his hand, and then ran off with the basketball. In telling the story of this remarkable night, author Gary M. Pomerantz brings to life a lost world of American sports.

In 1962, the National Basketball Association, stepchild to the college game, was searching for its identity. Its teams were mostly white, the number of black players limited by an unspoken quota. Games were played in drafty, half-filled arenas, and the players traveled on buses and trains, telling tall tales, playing cards, and sometimes reading Joyce. Into this scene stepped the unprecedented Wilt Chamberlain: strong and quick-witted, voluble and enigmatic, a seven-footer who played with a colossal will and a dancer’s grace. That strength, will, grace, and mystery were never more in focus than on March 2, 1962. Pomerantz tracked down Knicks and Philadelphia Warriors, fans, journalists, team officials, other NBA stars of the era, and basketball historians, conducting more than 250 interviews in all, to recreate in painstaking detail the game that announced the Dipper’s greatness. He brings us to Hershey, Pennsylvania, a sweet-seeming model of the gentle, homogeneous small-town America that was fast becoming anachronistic. We see the fans and players, alternately fascinated and confused by Wilt, drawn anxiously into the spectacle. Pomerantz portrays the other legendary figures in this story: the Warriors’ elegant coach Frank McGuire; the beloved, if rumpled, team owner Eddie Gottlieb; and the irreverent p.a. announcer Dave “the Zink” Zinkoff, who handed out free salamis courtside.

At the heart of the book is the self-made Chamberlain, a romantic cosmopolitan who owned a nightclub in Harlem and shrugged off segregation with a bebop cool but harbored every slight deep in his psyche. March 2, 1962, presented the awesome sight of Wilt Chamberlain imposing himself on a world that would diminish him. Wilt, 1962 is not only the dramatic story of a singular basketball game but a meditation on small towns, midcentury America, and one of the most intriguing figures in the pantheon of sports heroes.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A lively study of the life and times of basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, "the twentieth century's greatest pure athlete," focusing on an extraordinary night. Then 25 years old, Chamberlain had already made a name for himself in the NBA, racking up significant victories for the Philadelphia Warriors and a significant record as the league's leading scorer. As Pomerantz (Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, 1996) writes, Chamberlain was still in the process of becoming himself, though what a process: he could run the 440 in 49 seconds, broad jump 23 feet, and lift 625 pounds, and he was quickly emerging as "the most striking symbol of basketball's new age of self-expression and egotism-a development slightly ahead of the overall popular culture." On March 2, 1962, the Warriors met the New York Knickerbockers in Hershey, Pa. Chamberlain was 237 points short of a record of 4,000 points for the 1961-62 season, while "no other NBA player had ever scored even 3,000 points," and the well-oiled Knicks machine was but a minor obstacle. Chamberlain never heard the adage "there's no I in team." His teammates resented him, and in turn he "didn't seek friendship from them, only the basketball." Yet on that night even they were inclined to give him his due as he churned up his 100 points in a white-hot game that closed 169-147. (When Chamberlain hit the magic number, a boy came up to him, shook his hand and ran off with the game ball. (After Chamberlain's death in 1999, Pomerantz writes, the "borrower" sold the ball for $551,000.) But few outside Hershey paid attention to the victory, which, Pomerantz writes in a nice turn, "became a sunken galleon, resting on the ocean floor." Race may have hadsomething to do with it-but, in those quieter times, the media hadn't yet saturated our lives, and people found other things to expound on than sports. A sports book worth talking about, and a moving portrait of a great athlete and his era. Author tour

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Chapter 1: The Dipper in Harlem

There is a photograph of the Dipper with James Baldwin on a Harlem street corner, the big man in a slim suit and snap-brim fedora, tilting his frame toward the writer, seemingly half his size. If not classically handsome, Chamberlain's face was arresting: a long, narrow brow over almond eyes lit by youth and restless ambition, high cheekbones, and a cool jazzman's trimmed mustache. Then, when he really wanted something (or someone), there came a starry smile and his deep baritone transformed to the smooth, soft patter of the FM radio deejay. It was Baldwin who in 1961, back in America after years of self-imposed exile in Europe, wrote words that defined his life's direction, words that Chamberlain may have heard. Baldwin wrote, "I had said that I was going to be a writer, God, Satan, and Mississippi notwithstanding, and that color did not matter, and that I was going to be free. And, here I was, left with only myself to deal with. It was entirely up to me."

Chamberlain, too, would create himself, would refuse to be defined by size or color or his sport. In 1962, the Dipper drove a white Cadillac convertible, but only until he could take delivery of a nobleman's car, a Bentley, custom-made in England at a cost of nearly $30,000 (including tax and shipping), roughly six times the average yearly salary for an American worker. Wealthy after his one season with the Globetrotters and three with the Warriors, he used his big money as a tool of self-creation. After buying his parents a house in west Philadelphia, he lavished upon himself twenty fine suits, thirteen pairs of stylish shoes, the Cadillac, and a chic, pricey, Oriental-motif apartment on Central Park West. It was a far cry from 401 Salford Street, where Chamberlain had been raised. With nine children, William and Olivia Chamberlain, a handyman and a domestic, at times had two, three, or four kids in each bedroom; at five-thirty each morning they felt the trolleys rumble past their rented row house in ethnic, working-class west Philly.

The young Dipper came of age noticing little discrimination, though once, when he was about four, on a bus in Virginia bound for Philadelphia, his mother wouldn't allow him to sit near the front. "No, mama, this seat right here is open," the young Dipper protested, even as she tried to steer him toward the rear of the segregated bus. It prompted the white bus driver to intervene, "No, sonny, you go back there with your mother like a good little boy," and he did, though uncertain as to why.

So valuable was Chamberlain's name now, so incandescent his persona, that a historic Harlem nightclub, Smalls Paradise, let him buy in as part-owner and put his name first on the marquee in exchange for his presence. He loved Harlem, the neon, the ladies, James Brown, Etta James, Redd Foxx, a lush life with jazz the soundtrack. And when Wilton Norman Chamberlain moved through Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise, there attached to him an aura suggesting he owned not only this place, but all of Harlem, perhaps all of New York. His presence in the club was signaled by the white Cadillac parked out front by one of the nightclub boys on the corner of 135th Street, while Chamberlain strode around the club's dark interior greeting his guests, draping an arm around Tom "Satch" Sanders of the Boston Celtics, squeezing a shoulder, "Good to see you, Satch. Sit down, relax, and enjoy yourself." Reminiscing years later, the Dipper would recall this as the greatest time in his life.

At Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise, the bandleader King Curtis worked deep into the night, and the denizens turned up wearing...

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