'Wilt, 1962': A Basketball Legend's Record Game Wilt Chamberlain, a seven-foot-tall black man in a white man's NBA, changed professional basketball forever in one momentous night when he scored 100 points. Author Gary M. Pomerantz profiles a natural athlete with be-bop cool.
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'Wilt, 1962': A Basketball Legend's Record Game

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'Wilt, 1962': A Basketball Legend's Record Game

'Wilt, 1962': A Basketball Legend's Record Game

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ED GORDON, host:

Among the legendary stars of the NBA, one player stands out. In the 1960s, Wilt Chamberlain was a 7-foot black giant in a white man's league. Chamberlain's prowess brought change to professional basketball, and one moment at night brought the stuff dreams are made of. In a new book titled "Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era," author Gary Pomerantz explores the legacy of the star whose life is still defined by numbers.

Mr. GARY POMERANTZ (Author, "Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era"): At the moment of his great glory, a minute-25 to play, the kids in Hershey screaming, `Give it to Wilt, give it to Wilt.'

(Soundbite of basketball game)

Unidentified Announcer: One minute and one second to play. He has 98 points. Rodgers??? throws long to Chamberlain. He's got it. He's trying to get up. He shoots. No good. The rebound Luckenbill???, back to Chamberlain. He shoots, up, no good. Now the rebound Luckenbill, back to Lepford???, in to Chamberlain. He made it! All right! He made it!

Mr. POMERANTZ: For a player to score 100 points in an NBA game, he must not only want to do it, he must, on a deeper level, need to do it; to take an opponent, an entire sport, and bend it to his will, to show that it could be done and only by him.

GORDON: Gary Pomerantz, thank you so much for joining us. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. POMERANTZ: It's my pleasure.

GORDON: I must say, I found it most interesting that you focus in on what is clearly, in my opinion, one of the greatest sports legacies of any professional sports and certainly one of those records that I think will be very hard, if ever broken.

Mr. POMERANTZ: Yes. Wilt Chamberlain's hundred-point game really is the Everest of sports records. I mean, it's never been approached. No one else in an NBA game has scored 90 points or 80 or even 75. The next highest point output by a player, other than Wilt, was 73 points by Denver's David Thompson??? in 1978. So while it's one of sports' most legendary performances, what I discovered was hardly anyone knew anything about it.

GORDON: That's almost what makes it the perfect storm, the fact that it was it Hershey, Pennsylvania at the time; the fact that in 1962, the pro game was not nearly what we know it as in terms of popularity today. There was no footage of this--video footage. I mean, it really lends itself to great sports lure.

Mr. POMERANTZ: Yes. And when you think about the NBA of 1962, you need to forget the glamour and glitz of today's NBA. Back in 1962, the NBA was perceived by many sports journalists as a lounge act. You still had players smoking cigarettes, sometimes at halftime. They were washing their own uniforms in hotel room sinks, and the league was trying to grow new fans by playing games outside of the big cities in places like the famous chocolate town of Hershey.

GORDON: We spoke recently with Walt Frazier and George Gervin, no slouches in their own right, with the NBA, and they said hands down, Wilt Chamberlain was the greatest player they ever played against and certainly they'd ever seen, and people who have seen Michael Jordan find this hard to fathom. But Wilt Chamberlain literally (technical difficulties) the game.

Mr. POMERANTZ: He certainly did. And, you know, with all due respect to Michael Jordan, he could never be Wilt Chamberlain, in part because of the difference in the time periods. Michael Jordan playing in the 1980s and '90s. The league had certainly established itself as a major-league sport at that point. But in 1959, Wilt Chamberlain entered what was largely a white man's enclave, and Wilt Chamberlain took on what was unquestionably a quota. And this quota limited the number of African-American players to initially one or two per team, and then three and four, and what Chamberlain was doing was leading the movement that would shatter that quota to smithereens.

GORDON: I'm wondering if you would agree with this. I have often thought that Wilt Chamberlain didn't always get the due in terms of who he was as a person. When you think about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, you had to have--and Branch Rickey has said this--the right person in terms of disposition, intellect and confidence. The same could be said for Wilt Chamberlain in that he embodied all of these and really did move himself and this league forward.

Mr. POMERANTZ: Well, he certainly did, and he was Goliath. He used to say that nobody roots for Goliath. He just didn't reveal much of his softer side. A story that one of his teammates shared with me, Paul Arizin, also a Hall of Fame player, was a teammate for three years with Wilt, 1959 through '62. Now Arizin was white, was married, significantly older than Wilt, and so they never really had a meaningful conversation in three seasons as teammates. Now all these years later, 1997, the NBA names its top 50 players of all time. They honor them at the All-Star Game in Cleveland, and Paul Arizin brings his 16-year-old granddaughter Stephanie,??? who was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor. Wilt Chamberlain found out about this, and he had befriended Stephanie's father, who was Paul's son, Michael,??? in the locker room all those years before, so he begins a letter-writing correspondence with young Stephanie, and in Cleveland, Stephanie's in a wheelchair. Wilt pushes her wheelchair around the room, helping her to obtain all the autographs of the great stars. And when that night was over in Cleveland, Paul Arizin was emotional and he said, `You know, Wilt, I'm indebted to you. I don't know how to thank you.' And when I talked about it with Paul much later, I think what he was struggling to say was only now did it feel truly as if he and Wilt were teammates.

GORDON: When you think about Wilt Chamberlain, outside of the numbers, 100-point game, 50-point average per season, the infamous 20,000 women, what do you think about?

Mr. POMERANTZ: Well, I think of Wilt as the single-most transformative figure in the game's history. I think as time goes by, Wilt will increasingly get his due. For right now, I think we can find the shorthand summary of Wilt's life in two numbers: 20,000 and 100. And, you know, the 20,000, of course, as you say, from his boast late in life that he'd slept with 20,000 women, but the hundred from this magical night in Hershey, Pennsylvania. And needless to say, one number can be proven and the other can't.

GORDON: Well, it is clearly an interesting read. The title is "Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era." Gary Pomerantz is the author. We thank you for spending time with us.

Mr. POMERANTZ: Thanks for having me on the show. I've enjoyed it.

GORDON: To hear Gary Pomerantz reading from his book, log on to npr.org.

That does it for the program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American public radio consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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