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


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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Wilt, 1962

By Gary M. Pomerantz

Random House

Gary M. Pomerantz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400051606

Chapter One

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 sharkskin suits and memorable monikers: Big Pete, Little Pete, an intellectual straight shooter known as Knowledge, and of course, Charlie Polk, Wilt's right-hand man, always at his side, Robin to his Batman. His name, called out so often, rolled off the Dipper's tongue: Chollypolk. Small and thin as straw, Polk was, as one Harlem nightclub regular would say, “one of those types of guys who if he latched on to you, he didn't let go.” Whatever the Dipper wanted—his shirts picked up at the cleaners, his friend's wife picked up at the bus stop and taken shopping—Chollypolk got it done. When a beautiful woman at Smalls caught the Dipper's eye, Chollypolk became his emissary, quietly letting the woman know of his boss's interest and gauging her availability. He loved being on stage at the club, and though he couldn't sing or dance and he stuttered slightly, he was a riotous emcee. If you put a microphone in his hand, Chollypolk might never let go of it, and Redd Foxx would sit beside the stage, waiting, waiting to begin his gig.

Foxx, a bawdy redheaded comic, was a Harlem favorite. “Lincoln got his head on all the pennies. Roosevelt got his head on all the dimes,” Foxx would say. “I just want to get my hands on some.” In his first New York nightclub date in a decade, Foxx, a rising national star (to all but the censors), appeared at Smalls Paradise in December 1961. In smoky clubs, perspiring beneath the spotlight, Foxx would deliver his raunchy routines, unafraid of the social taboos of sex and race. In one, using his trademark off-color double entendres, he told of how everyone in his hometown had bought a jackass. “Even the little bitty kids, they had a ass of their own,” Foxx would say. “Preacher's wife had the biggest ass in town. I know because I rode her big ass all the time.” And, Foxx said, her husband, the preacher, “didn't have such a bad ass himself,” though when a fire broke out in the church's back pew, “Reverend took a long running jump out the window to land on his ass. But somebody had stolen Ol' Reverend's ass and he wasn't there. Reverend fell down into a deep hole in the ground and that's where they found him.” Foxx gave a comic's pause. “Just goes to show you, don't it? Some folks don't know their ass from a hole in the ground.”

Smalls Paradise was a legend that dated back to the Harlem Renaissance of the Twenties when its waiters danced or roller-skated across the room with service trays held high; the club was known then as the Hottest Spot in Harlem. Chamberlain had long wanted his own nightclub, an environment that had always drawn him as a stage for his fabulousness—why, even when he was just sixteen, his rival at West Philadelphia High, Ray Scott, had spotted him at a dance at the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge in Philadelphia and noticed how the Dipper flourished in such a setting, managing what all of the other boys couldn't, a laid-back, Miles Davis, be-bop cool. Chamberlain well knew the precedents of black athletes owning such places in New York. Back in the Twenties, Club Deluxe in Harlem briefly was owned by the prizefighter Jack Johnson, a controversial figure excoriated by the white press in the early part of the century for having twice married white women and later imprisoned for transporting a woman across state lines in violation of the Mann Act. Now Joe Louis and Ray Robinson lent their names and money to The Brown Bomber and Sugar Ray's. It wasn't so much the fast life that attracted the Dipper to buy a piece of Smalls in the spring of 1961. He rarely drank or smoked and he exercised every day, pushing his own physical limits. (Before one weekend trip to Atlantic City, his friend Cal Ramsey tried to pick up Chamberlain's suitcase but found it too heavy. Ramsey looked inside and discovered why—the Dipper's barbells.) What attracted Chamberlain to Smalls Paradise was the chance to explore new avenues of his own celebrity.

In calm moments, the Abyssinian Baptist Church crowd came for early Sunday dinners. But on most other nights, the nightclub was, like its part owner, full of the energy and exuberance of youth. “The Twist” by Philadelphia's Chubby Checker was yet the rage, and the Tuesday night Twist contests packed the downstairs Wilmac Room. Limousines and taxis carrying big-money whites triple-parked out front. “Meeting again at Smalls Paradise as their fathers did before them, a brand new generation of monied fun-seeking whites is flocking happily to Harlem,” Ebony magazine noted. “And Wilt Chamberlain's cash registers are running as hot as the gyrations on the floor.” It was a see-and-be-seen crowd, sophisticated, elite, and integrated. Smiling for pictures for Ebony magazine on a Tuesday Twist night were comic Jack Carter, famed saxophonist Cannonball Adderly with actress Olga James, a Rockefeller, an Astor, Edward Smalls (the former owner who sold the club in 1955), the Greek ambassador to the United Nations, singer Lloyd Price, and of course, the Dipper himself.

His nightclub impressed other African-American players in the NBA, not only for its high style and glitz but because it suggested Chamberlain's business acumen. They considered Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise a must-stop along the Strip in Harlem along with Jocks and the Red Rooster. The Knicks' Willie Naulls and Johnny Green were regulars at Smalls. The Celtics' K.C. Jones, in with Bill Russell once, met James Brown, and was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Godfather of Soul's ego.

Here, in Harlem, was the Wilt Chamberlain few white Americans knew: easing comfortably through what W.E.B. Du Bois once had called “the Black World Beyond the Veil.” Here was the Apollo Theater and Showman's Lounge, the Big Apple bar, The Harlem Moon, Lickity Split, and Roy Campanella's liquor store. The neighborhood was thirty years past its heyday; no longer the hub of black intellectual and cultural life, Harlem had become riddled with crime, dope, and storefront vacancies, an urban despair and bleakness suffused with racial tension and frustration. Still, the Strip retained some of its old-time flair. In the neon flash and bustle, crowds moved from one nightclub to the next. At the Red Rooster, where Willie Mays had held sway during the early 1950s, you could still find Congressman Adam Clayton Powell surrounded by admirers. A club hopper could see comic Nipsy Russell at the Baby Grand on 125th Street, stop by Sugar Ray's on 126th, and then walk six blocks over to Count Basie's club. Next door to Count Basie's on 132nd was Shalimar by Randolph, a nightclub that featured a late-night beauty salon. When Knicks first-year guard Sam Stith, a Harlem resident, came out to the Strip in 1962, he dressed to the nines and no one crowded him. A few years before, Stith had taken his girlfriend to Shalimar by Randolph at 11:00 one night to get her hair done. She finished at 3:00 a.m. While he waited, Stith saw a hustler, all primped up, enter and shout, “Suits!” The hustler looked at the Knicks guard. “What size?” he asked. Stith replied, “Forty-two.” The hustler put the same question to another man sitting nearby, then said, “I'll be back in an hour.” Stith looked at his watch: 1:00 a.m. An hour passed, back came the hustler, suits in hand. Stith didn't buy; the other guy did. Another hour later, Stith and his girlfriend headed to Wells Restaurant for the famous chicken and waffles, a perfect way to end the night, or start the morning.

In this animated environment, Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise remained a bright light. So hot was the revelry at Smalls on Twist nights, local columnist Jesse H. Walker asked, “Will this thing never end?” In Harlem, Jackie Robinson co-hosted a cocktail party for New York's Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller; Malcolm X, in his dark suit and shined black shoes, made his rounds through the streets surrounding the Nation of Islam's Mosque Seven in Harlem (and periodically ridiculed the nonviolent movement, including sit-ins, saying, “Anybody can sit. An old woman can sit. A coward can sit. . . . It takes a man to stand.”); and Wilt Chamberlain moved through his own celebrated orbit. If Philadelphia was his workplace, Harlem was his living room. He gravitated to a black world shared with whites, not an exclusive world or an excluding one. Each night in the NBA, the Dipper played for white team owners and predominantly white crowds, but here, at Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise, surrounded by icons of black life in the lingering glow of Harlem glamour, whites came to him—to his place.

The March 2 game in Hershey meant little to Chamberlain . . . except another Friday night away from Harlem. He had spent Thursday night, and the wee hours of Friday morning, doing what the Dipper often did, enjoying the spoils of his celebrity. He dropped off his date at her home in Queens at 6:00 a.m. and only then set his sights on Hershey. He would travel the 170 miles to Chocolate Town on his own.

Wilt Chamberlain had one incentive in Hershey. On another scoring rampage, he was closing in on 4,000 points for the 1961–62 season; no other NBA player had ever scored even 3,000 points. On the previous Sunday, the Dipper had torn into the Knicks for sixty-seven points. Two days later, in St. Louis, he scored sixty-five in a victory over Bob Pettit's Hawks. On Wednesday, he had annihilated the great rookie big man, Walt Bellamy, and the expansion Chicago Packers, scoring sixty-one on Bells and blocking twelve of his shots. In that game, the Dipper also made thirteen of his seventeen free throws, typically the Achilles heel of his game. Chamberlain, who loved statistics (especially his own), needed 237 more points over the remaining five games to reach the once-unthinkable 4,000.

On top of his statistical rampage, he was revolutionizing his sport stylistically much as Babe Ruth had revolutionized his in the 1920s. What the garrulous Ruth did with the home run, Chamberlain was doing with the Dipper Dunk. Slam dunks still were relatively rare. It's not that NBA players were incapable of stuffing the ball through the basket; they simply didn't do it. Basketball traditionalists believed dunks suggested poor sportsmanship or showboating. As the NBA's second tallest player (Syracuse's Swede Halbrook stood seven-foot-three), Chamberlain was beginning to break with tradition by dunking with some regularity. Even so, he remained more of a finesse player around the basket, with finger-rolls and put-backs. He dunked with real force only when the spirit, or perhaps an opponent's well-placed elbow, moved him.

As Ruth, with his fifty-four home runs in 1920, had lifted baseball from the dead-ball era, so Chamberlain was lifting pro basketball into a new realm of scoring possibilities.


Excerpted from Wilt, 1962 by Gary M. Pomerantz Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gary M. Pomerantz earned acclaim with his two previous books. Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, a multigenerational biography of Atlanta and its racial conscience, was named a 1996 Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds (2001), the true story of an airplane crash, has been published in Britain, Germany, and China. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Pomerantz worked for nearly two decades as a journalist, first as a sportswriter for the Washington Post and then writing columns, editorials, and special projects for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He later served for two years as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at Emory University in Atlanta. He lives today in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and their three children.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
gman60 More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly enjoyed Wilt, 1962. Gary Pomerantz really creates an accurate portayal of life in the US during the 60's the NBA at that time, and a whole lot of facts (of the Dipper and the league) you never really think of until you read the book. This was a very enjoyable book for me and and appropo time to release it on this the 50th anniversary of Wilt's 100 point accomplishment.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An in depth look at all the players who played in Wilt's 100-point game. An excellent view of life in the NBA in 1962. You understand how all the players felt in the fourth quarter as Wilt closed in on 100 points.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book makes a case for Wilt Chamberlain being the greatest of all NBA players, not just for his 100 point game, but for the athletic ability, consistency, and his penchant for generating interest in professional basketball. It's true, the stars of today owe Wilt. The story surrounds his life and the 100 point game 46 years ago that nobody has com even close to. An entertaining book , but too much detail as to who threw what kind of pass to set up Chamberlain's baskets
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gives you an inside look on wilt chamberlains 100 point game
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