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 had something 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.