Wilt Chamberlain: An American Original

by March 01, 2012

Wilt’s night in Hershey is routinely and falsely perceived as an example of a player putting himself over the team for personal glory and triumph. That train of thought couldn’t be farther from the truth. Chamberlain was brought in to Philadelphia following his global tour with the Harlem Globetrotters for one reason and one reason only: to score.

He was there to draw fans and fans wanted to see high scores, and that’s exactly what he gave them. “If you think about it, to score 100 points in a game, three things have to be in place,” explains Pomerantz. “Number one, obviously the scorer has to have superior skills. Number two, the opposition must be weak in the area where the scorer is strongest. Number three, and this may be obvious but it bears closer scrutiny, the teammates have to submit to the quest, they have to go along with it! They have to give up their usual role and their usual manner of play and rhythms of the game and just feed the ball to the scorer again and again and again… Wilt scored 100 points because he could. But, he couldn’t have done it without his teammates passing him the ball.”

Wilt’s teammates completely obliged to his quest for 100 points; an odd fact considering he had no deep kinship with most of them. He was genuinely thankful for his teammate’s help in achieving this unbelievable feat and attempted to defer all post-game interview questions to his teammates. In fact, Wilt revealed that felt badly about taking 63 shots in a single game to which teammate and friend Al Attles responded, “Yeah, but you made 36 of them. Hey, we’ll take that any day of the week.” Wilt may have scored 100 points, but he rarely relished in the moment or gloated after the fact—he was much more boastful of his claim to have slept with 20,000 women.

After the game, Wilt hopped in his Cadillac and drove back to Manhattan with Knick player Willie Naulls and celebrated his triumphs at Big Wilt’s. When he awoke the next morning, there was very little fanfare and news surrounding the achievement; there was almost no media in the building for the game, the game was not televised, which resulted in not being on the front page of any of the newspapers in Philadelphia or New York.

There was no celebration or acknowledgement on March 3, 1963 nor ’67 nor ’72 nor ’82. It was as if the game never took place. Sure, hoop heads knew the significance of the accomplishment, but for the fairweather fan, it was if the game had never even happened. It wasn’t until 1987, the 25th anniversary of the 100-performance that the media began to take full notice and began to acknowledge and celebrate the Dipper’s once in a lifetime achievement.

Wilt Chamberlain will be forever remembered for his night in Hershey, and that is both his blessing and his curse—the Dipper was a much more complex human being and the 100-point game puts him in a box. By solely focusing on Wilt’s goliath achievements, people miss who Wilt truly was. He was an articulate, intelligent and larger than life figure who had a big heart and the following excerpt from Gary Pomerantz’s Wilt, 1962 perfectly characterizes the real Wilt Chamberlain:

[Teammate Paul] Arizin told of how Chamberlain had befriended his 16-year-old granddaughter, Stephanie, as she was dying of an inoperable brain tumor. The Dipper corresponded with her for months and phoned her regularly; when the NBA in 1997 honored its greatest fifty players at the all-star game in Cleveland (including Arizin and the Dipper), Stephanie came with her and pushed her wheelchair around the room, getting all fifty NBA legends to sign her book, including [Bill] Russell, long notorious for refusing to sign autographs. “Wilt, I’m in your debt,” Arizin told him in Cleveland. “I owe you.” Five months later, Stephanie Arizin died and Chamberlain sent a Dipper-sized floral arrangement. Paul Arizin had hardly known him in 1962. There was the age difference, the racial separation, Arizin was married, the Dipper single. Wilt was hard to know. What Paul Arizin felt, but struggled to say, was that only now did it feel like they were truly teammates.

There will never be another Wilt Chamberlain. No player will ever match Wilt’s impact on the game nor capture the imaginations of fans. Wilt’s legacy will forever be intact and he will forever be talked about amongst fans of the game. Chamberlain’s non-conformist personality and individualistic state of mind truly made him an American original.

You can purchase Gary Pomerantz’s “Wilt, 1962” here.