Interview With Gary Pomerantz, Author of Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New EraMarch 2, 2012 is the 50th anniversary of one of the most amazing feats in sports history: Wilt Chamberlain's 100 point game. Chamberlain, who shockingly passed away at just 63 years old in 1999, would want people to remember two things in particular about that game: (1) his team, the Philadelphia Warriors, won convincingly (169-147 versus the New York Knicks) and (2) he would not have achieved the record without sinking 28 of his 32 free throws, an .875 accuracy rate that any sharpshooter would be proud of but was almost unimaginably good for a player who struggled to make half of his free throws during his career.
Someone once quipped that the NBA Record Book should be renamed "The Wilt Chamberlain Story"; more than three decades after Chamberlain retired, some of his records have been broken (most notably the once seemingly untouchable mark for career scoring, 31,419, a total that now ranks fourth all-time) but others--including his 100 point game, his 55 rebound game, his 23,924 career rebounds and his posting of the first (and only) double triple double in NBA history (22 points, 25 rebounds and 21 assists versus Detroit on February 2, 1968)--are not just unbroken but are probably unbreakable. Chamberlain holds the record for having the most NBA records and that may be the most unbreakable mark of all because Chamberlain set the standard in so many disparate categories ranging from points to rebounds to field goal percentage to assists--and he undoubtedly would hold a slew of shot-blocking records if that statistic had been officially tallied during his career.
Gary Pomerantz' Wilt 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era is the definitive book about Chamberlain's 100 point game and the impact that this accomplishment had not just on the NBA but also on society in general. I recently spoke with Mr. Pomerantz about his book and about Chamberlain's remarkable achievement:
Friedman: "When you researched your Wilt Chamberlain book--and I know that you did a lot of interviews and an extensive amount of research--what did you learn about Wilt that most surprised you?"
Pomerantz: "A couple things. First--and I don't know if this necessarily surprised me--but I think that for the first time I understood the context of who he was and his career. In terms of what surprised me, I think maybe a little bit about his isolation. I had this terrifying sense of isolation--even somehow when the New York Knicks were surrounding him that night in Hershey with three and four players he just seemed alone. Everyone on the court, his teammates included, just dissolved into darkness and there Wilt stood alone in the spotlight. And that was true in his life. He did not marry. In 1962 he was kind of living in his own celebrated orbit. He lived in New York and played in Philadelphia. So his teammates would only see him for games and practices and on the road. And he built a life for himself in neon in New York. He lived in a stylish apartment off Central Park, he had a racehorse that he owned and he bought into a historic Harlem nightclub, Smalls Paradise, which dated to the halcyon days of the Harlem Renaissance. His name--or, I should say, his celebrity--was such that they put his name on the marquee and so it became Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise. The club was hopping. Chubby Checker's Twist was the rage and they had Twist dance contests at Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise on Tuesday nights and Redd Foxx and Etta James performed there. It just seemed like at one time Wilt owned all of Harlem or all of New York. He loved basketball, he loved his women and he loved himself."
Friedman: "If an NBA player averaged 19 points per game for a 10-12 season career he likely would make the All-Star team multiple times and he probably would even be a candidate for the Hall of Fame. The difference between Wilt's 100 point game and the next game on the list--the second most prolific single game scoring performance in NBA history--is 19 points; the second game is Kobe Bryant's 81 point performance. Considering all of that, do you think that Wilt's record will ever be broken and where do you rank Wilt's accomplishment compared to other records such as Joe DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak?"
Pomerantz: "Will the 100 point game be broken in the NBA? Probably not, though if it is I suspect it will happen in the NBA All-Star Game and four guys will do it in the same game with the amount of defense that is played in that game. No, I don't think that it will be broken. It's hard to imagine it being broken at a time when only three teams in the National Basketball Association are averaging 100 points. Kobe Bryant's 81 point performance was one of those shooter's paradise nights; Kobe is a superlative scorer but his performance carries none of the mythology or the social import of Wilt's 100. Soon after the game ended you could go online and purchase a DVD of Kobe's 81 point game, whereas with Wilt Chamberlain's game in 1962 there were no TV cameras there and all we have are a few still photographs, the box score, the memories of the men who played in it and some of the people who saw it and the fourth quarter audio tape of Bill Campbell's play by play call on WCAU radio in Philadelphia, which has become like the Zapruder film of that night. Radio has this outsize quality--you can't see what is happening but you can hear it, so it becomes a little bit like FDR's fireside chats: everything is larger in our imagination. Wilt's performance did have social import. You must remember that when Wilt entered the NBA in 1959 from the Harlem Globetrotters he entered a white man's enclave. By that I mean that there was unquestionably a quota in the NBA at that time among league owners that limited opportunities for African-American players. Initially it was one or two black players per team and by Wilt's third year it was three or four players. This quota was not written down and codified but it was understood and in fact it was systemic in American life. By comparison, Major League Baseball and the National Football League had even smaller percentages of black players then. What Wilt was doing throughout that 1961-62 season by averaging 50 points per game and then by throwing down that 100 point thunderbolt against the Knicks in Hershey was symbolically blowing that quota to pieces."
Friedman: "Did you ever read the William Goldman/Mike Lupica book Wait Till Next Year?"
Pomerantz: "I know about that book."
Friedman: "They alternated writing chapters in that book and in one of Goldman's chapters called 'To the Death' he talked about how sooner or later every athlete gets torn down rhetorically as his accomplishments recede into the past--critics will say that a player did not play defense or he did not face tough competition--but Goldman felt like Wilt Chamberlain was one player that the critics would never be able to tear down because whenever you open the record book Wilt Chamberlain always has 'the most this's' or 'the most that's' and Goldman predicted 'That's not going to change' well into the next century. That book was written in the late 1980s and we're in 2012 and Wilt still holds more records than anyone. It really is remarkable.
Some people have a different take on Wilt, though--people who are proponents of what is called 'advanced basketball statistics.' I don't know how familiar you are with this but some people look at Wilt's numbers and adjust them for pace. They say that in Wilt's era the pace was much faster, more shots were being attempted and more points were being scored, so if you adjust for pace Wilt Chamberlain's 50 points per game average for a season is actually not as significant or as prolific as Michael Jordan's 37 points per game average in 1987 when the pace of the game was slower. I am curious what your take is on that. Do you think that adjusting for pace is a valid way to look at this or if you are adjusting for pace then you also have to adjust somehow for other factors like differences in travel, training and other things that made it more difficult to score in Wilt's era?"
Note: Our telephone call got disconnected toward the end of that question, so after resuming contact I repeated those last two sentences and then Mr. Pomerantz made the following reply.
Pomerantz: "I have more of a historical take. With all due respect to Michael Jordan, who played the game exquisitely and whose legend will stand on its own, he cannot be as historically significant as Wilt Chamberlain by virtue of the two time periods that these guys played in. Do you follow me?"
Friedman: "Yes. Absolutely."
Pomerantz: "Oscar Robertson has said that Wilt Chamberlain single-handedly saved the league because he was so compelling and because people wanted to see the guy who scored 100 points in a game. The league needed saving at that point. Many sportswriters viewed it as sort of a lounge act. By the time Michael Jordan got into the NBA it had already gone through a renaissance thanks in large part to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The league was on terra firma by the time Michael Jordan got there. So, Wilt Chamberlain must be seen for what he is and that is the game's single most transformative figure. He transformed the geometry of the game. When he came into the NBA in 1959 the game was a feet on the floor, horizontal game; there were still set shooters playing, taking a shot that dates back to the origins of basketball in the way back in the 1890s. Wilt made this transformation, along with the likes of Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor and Bill Russell--it became a more athletic league, something that had a faster metabolism. The game was played faster and higher than ever before. So, maybe this is like talking about comparing Elvis to the Beetles: you can't have the Beetles without having Elvis.
Your question is specifically about basketball, an on the court question, and that (adjusting statistics for pace) is an interesting notion. There is this mistaken idea that in the early 1960s Wilt scored all of his baskets on 'Dipper dunks,' that he just stood there and dunked every time and that in Hershey he had 50 dunks (in the 100 point game). But nothing could be further from the truth. When you think about Wilt there were actually three different Wilts during his career. There is the old muscle-bound guy in the yellow headband playing for the Lakers and there is an earlier version in the middle 1960s when he went back to Philadelphia to play for the 76ers and he decided to prove that he could pass and he led the league in assists, which he crowed is kind of like Babe Ruth leading the league in sacrifice bunts. But then there is the first generation of Wilt in the NBA and that's the lean Wilt, the 7-1, 260 pound Wilt who ran the floor like a train. The Philadelphia Warriors had an early rendition of Showtime with Guy Rodgers distributing in the middle, Al Attles running on the left and Chamberlain on the right, covering eight feet of hardwood with each elongated stride. I interviewed a lot of players who played against him at that early hour and they spoke of him with a hushed reverence, the way that a Native American on the plains might have spoken about the first time he saw a locomotive. He was that unprecedented. He really could be considered the first real seven foot athlete. I'd go even further and say that if you judge athleticism purely as a combination of size, speed, strength and agility then the young Chamberlain vintage 1962--7-1, 260 pounds, a decathlete and a scorer of the basketball of unprecedented skill--might have been the greatest pure athlete of the 20th century and if not he deserves to be in the conversation along with the likes of Jim Thorpe, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and others."
Friedman: "That's a great point. I seem to recall that when the NBA made the 50 Greatest Players List and all of those players gathered together during All-Star Weekend, Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan were kind of playfully discussing their different eras and the point that Wilt supposedly made was that in his era they made rules to slow him down--widening the lane and prohibiting the free throw shooter from jumping from the free throw line to dunk--while in Jordan's era they made rules to help Jordan out. Wilt felt that was the big difference.
One of the things that I found fascinating about your book is that you described what happened after Wilt scored the 100th point and the game was completed. I had always thought that they never finished those last seconds. You also pointed out that there is a discrepancy because the official box score says that the Knicks scored 147 points but you say that they actually scored 150. How did you find out that they actually did finish the entire game and what is your explanation about what happened with the discrepancy concerning how many points the Knicks scored?"
Pomerantz: "There is an audio tape of play by play from WCAU radio in Philadelphia. In fact, it's on the website for the book: you can listen to the entire fourth quarter play by play and after Wilt scores the 100th basket with 46 seconds to play it is like a dam burst. All of the kids, the sons of the Hershey factory workers, rushed the court and it must have been what it was like in France when Lindbergh landed in the field and everyone rushed to greet the great man. It was that kind of bedlam in Hershey among the kids. So, you hear the game played out and the players I spoke with who played in the 100 point game told me about those final seconds. You can hear the final 46 seconds on that tape; the game was stopped when Wilt scored 100 and all of the kids rushed out on the floor and it took some time for the game to start up again. Wilt did stay on the court and play out the game. He never touched the ball again. The three points that were lost--you can hear them say the final score, 169-150. (Note: I listened to the radio broadcast twice after doing this interview and the strange thing is that Campbell does call out a 169-150 score at one point but right after the game ends he says that the final score was 169-146, a tally that neither matches his earlier statement nor the total that has long been considered official). I talked to Harvey Pollack about that--Harvey Pollack is still, to this day, the statistician for the 76ers and back in that early time he was the statistician and the publicist for the Philadelphia Warriors; they used to call him the octopus because he was doing eight different things."
Pomerantz: "That night he was more like the centipede: he was writing game stories for the Associated Press, for UPI and for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which did not send its correspondent. Harvey sent out all of those reports by Western Union and he was also handling the statistics. That's a lot to look after, so it is easy to see how there is some confusion when the octopus turned centipede is doing all of that and all hell breaks loose on the court. In fact, Harvey told me that he wanted to make sure that when he and Dave Richter, the official scorer, went over everything after the game that Wilt really did score 100 and not 98. Of course, everything checked out but I would attribute it (the discrepancy regarding the Knicks' point total) to that (state of general confusion). You know, when fans today consider the 100 point game they need to put aside all notions of the NBA of today, the glitz and glamour and the promotional wizardry and the professionalism of the management of the game and the statistics. This was a league that was perceived my many sportswriters at that time--including some of the leading sports columnists in America like Red Smith of the New York Times and Shirley Povich of the Washington Post--as little more than a lounge act. It was lagging behind college basketball in popularity. The old joke was that the crowds were so small in the NBA that before the games the P.A. announcers would announce the starting lineups and then they would introduce each fan: 'There is Lou from Hershey and George from Harrisburg.' The Philadelphia Warriors played one game in a high school gym in Indiana and the reason that they played in Hershey is the league was trying to grow its fan base. The teams played in outlying areas; the Lakers played one game in Portland that season and another game in Seattle. The Syracuse Nationals played a game in Rochester and another one in Utica. The Boston Celtics played a game in Providence and the Warriors played three times in Hershey, which had an 8000 seat arena; of course, that night it was about half empty."
Friedman: "It really is amazing to consider that such an incredible record was set, as you said, in a company town in a half-filled arena.
Some of Wilt's critics contend that he chased individual stats at the expense of winning, while his supporters say that he had several different coaches during his career and--as you mentioned--he went through several different stages of his career and at each stage he did whatever his coaches asked him to do and whatever his various teams needed for him to do. Based on your interviews and your research, which of those characterizations of Wilt do you think is closer to the truth?"
Pomerantz: "I think that there is truth in both of those positions. Early in his career, he was just that much better than the rest of the league. He scored 100 points in a game because he could. He did prove to have a chameleon quality during his career. He was always trying to make (prove) a point, even when he was scoring them. In the 100 point game, this notion that he had 50 dunks is crazy--he was shooting from all over the floor, he was scoring in transition, he scored on some putbacks and some dunks but also his fall-away shot from the left side; he called it the best shot in the league and he did it to prove that it wasn't just his height that made him great, that he could shoot from anywhere or at least from beyond six inches from the basket. He (later) led the league in assists and at the end of his career playing for the Lakers he played the defensive role. Early in his career he did not play much defense. In fact, one interesting statistic in 1961-62 when he averaged 50 points per game is that he only committed 123 fouls in 80 games--that's one and a half fouls per game. Wilt was not a confrontational guy by nature. Bill Russell was and that was what made Russell the great defender that he was. Wilt had a Goliath-size skill set but Wilt also had a Goliath-size ego."
Note: At this point we got disconnected a second time and then we resumed the interview a couple minutes later.
Friedman: "Harvey Pollack once charted blocked shots for a few games as an experiment before blocked shots became an official stat and he noted that Wilt was blocking more than 10 shots per game; this was a little bit later in Wilt's career than the time frame you were describing when you talked about Wilt's defense but I was a little bit intrigued when you said that Wilt was not a great defensive player earlier in his career. Was that something that came out in the interviews that you conducted or where did you get that perception?"
Pomerantz: "Just talking with teammates. He had more of a shoot-'em up quality at that point, he was like a shooting gallery. Hershey was obviously an extreme example: they scored 316 points and they were taking five shots per minute, that's one shot every 12 seconds, so obviously there was not much defense being played. Wilt had moments when he played defense. I'm not saying that he couldn't play defense, I am just saying that there was a period in the early part of his career when he opted not to play defense 100%. He certainly did it at multiple points in the middle and latter parts of his career.
Make no mistake, to score 100 points in a game you not only have to want to do it; on a deeper level you have to need to do it. Wilt needed to do it. Wilt had this Goliath complex. He was 7-1 and at times he needed to prove that he was somehow even bigger and taller than that."
Friedman: "He is a fascinating psychological study. How would you characterize the differences between how athletes and media members interacted during Wilt Chamberlain's career versus the way that those interactions take place today?"
Pomerantz: "Back in that day, in 1962, the NBA really was not a 'national basketball association.' There were only nine teams and there was only one team west of St. Louis--the Lakers, who had moved from Minneapolis just the year before. The media at that time was a print media. Television had not yet come of age in American sports. When we talk about the media rapport with NBA players at that time we are talking about newspapers primarily--almost exclusively. Wilt had a pretty good rapport with reporters, the ones who were regulars covering the NBA who got to know him a little bit. The trouble was more with columnists who didn't cover the NBA and who belittled the NBA; they would try to cut down the stars, the big tall guys, by saying that they were pituitary freaks or goons. Today, as the print media begins--sadly--to recede we live in a more immediate world in which we have all kinds of reporters. We live in a world of social media. You can only imagine what it would have been like if we had Twitter in Hershey on March 2, 1962."
Friedman: "Twitter would have exploded."
Pomerantz: "Yeah. I think that in some ways the beat writers had closer relationships with the players then because there was much more access. Now, oftentimes, reporters are held at arm's length. The reporters back then did get to know the players well."
Friedman: "I want to thank you for the research that you did while writing this book. I am sure that it was a labor of love but it is also something that is historically significant, to have all of this information gathered in one place and then to be able to tell the story as lyrically as you did. So, I want to thank you for writing this book and thank you for taking the time today to speak with me. I very much appreciate it."
Pomerantz: "It was my pleasure and let me say that I appreciate the integrity of your questions and I wish you all of the best with your website."
Wilt Chamberlain: The Numbers Don't Lie
Wilt and Bobby: Not a Random Encounter (short story that describes what might have happened if writer Dick Schaap had succeeded in his attempt to arrange an encounter between Wilt Chamberlain and chess champion Bobby Fischer)
Classic Confrontation: Wilt Versus Shaq
The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part II (profiles of Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson)
posted by David Friedman @ 7:00 AM