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Saturday, March 03, 2012

Thoughts on Wilt, Kobe and LeBron

On the 50th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain's 100 point game, two of Chamberlain's former teams squared off in his hometown of Philadelphia--and only one of them managed to surpass the century mark, as the 76ers routed the Warriors 105-83. A couple weeks ago, two of the 10 best players in the NBA--two-time defending scoring champion Kevin Durant and 2011 All-NBA Second Team guard Russell Westbrook--combined to score 91 points. Not only is Chamberlain's record safe for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that any two NBA stars will combine to score 100 points in a game any time soon!

One of my favorite sports books is Wait Till Next Year, which was co-written by William Goldman and Mike Lupica. In a portion of the book titled "To the Death," Goldman described how most athletes' reputations decline with the passing of time but Goldman argued that Chamberlain would prove to be an exception to this. Goldman declared, "During Michael Jordan's amazing '86-'87, Wilt was always in the papers because Jordan was always scoring the most this's since Wilt Chamberlain or taking the most that's since Wilt Chamberlain. And that ain't gonna change, folks. Not in this century. Take big-scoring games, for example. Michael Jordan hit 60 points, twice last year. In the eighties, only two other men have done it, each once: Bernard King and Larry Bird. Four times this decade. Seven other guys did it once: Fulks (the first), Mikan, Gervin, West, Barry, Maravich and David 'oh-what-a-fall-was-there-' Thompson. Elgin Baylor did it thrice. And Wilt? Well, it's been done 46 times so you subtract. Wilt: 32. The rest of basketball: 14. At the present rate, we will be well into the twenty-first century before the NBA catches up." It is now almost 25 years since Goldman penned those words and Chamberlain still leads the rest of the NBA 32-28. Larry Miller (67), Zelmo Beaty (63) and Julius Erving (63 in four overtimes) are the only ABA players who scored at least 60 points in a game and even if you add their performances into the mix Chamberlain still leads every player in ABA-NBA history in 60 point games 32-31! Kobe Bryant (five), Michael Jordan (four in the regular season plus one in the playoffs) and Elgin Baylor (three in the regular season plus one in the playoffs) are the only players other than Chamberlain who have topped the 60 point barrier more than once.

You can adjust statistics for pace, you can debate the quality of defensive play in the 1960s compared to later eras, you can bring up whatever objections or qualifiers you want but anyone who truly understands basketball--anyone who has actually played the game at any level long enough to know how difficult it is to score even 30 or 40 points in a game--realizes that what Chamberlain accomplished that night in Hershey, Pennsylvania 50 years ago is remarkable. I loved the old clip that ESPN showed of Chamberlain saying that it was not that big of a deal because he only doubled his seasonal scoring average--remember, that was the year that Chamberlain averaged 50.4 ppg and amassed 45 games of at least 50 points, a one season total that far eclipses Michael Jordan's career total of 31 (Jordan also had eight more 50 point games in the playoffs).

It has been a real treat to watch Al Attles being interviewed about the 100 point game. During his playing days Attles was known as "Destroyer" because of his pugnaciousness but since he has been affiliated with the Golden State franchise for more than 50 years--including all 11 seasons of his playing career, followed by a stint as coach that brought the team its only championship (1974-75)--he could just as easily be called "Mr. Warrior." Attles is soft spoken, self deprecating (he scored 17 points on 8-8 field goal shooting and 1-1 free throw shooting during Chamberlain's 100 point game but simply says that with five players guarding Chamberlain it was not too hard to get a few open looks) and clearly feels a deep kinship with Chamberlain.

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Wilt Chamberlain finished second in MVP voting in 1961-62 (Bill Russell received the honor for the second year in a row and the third time in his career en route to capturing five regular season MVPs) despite leading the league in scoring with a record 4029 points (50.4 ppg), despite leading the league in rebounding with 2052 (25.6 rpg, a full two rpg more than runner-up Russell) and, as author Gary Pomerantz colorfully puts it, despite "throwing down a 100 point thunderbolt" that made a mockery of the league's unofficial quota against black players. Kobe Bryant can certainly relate to posting huge individual numbers but not winning the MVP; in 2005-06 he finished fourth in the balloting despite leading the NBA in scoring with 35.4 ppg, the eighth best single season scoring average in ABA-NBA history (trailing five different Chamberlain seasons plus Michael Jordan's 37.1 ppg in 1986-87 and Rick Barry's 35.6 ppg in 1966-67). Like Chamberlain, Bryant punctuated his season of dominance with an awesome single game scoring barrage; Bryant's 81 point outburst versus Toronto is the second best individual single game scoring performance in NBA history. Many of the top individual scoring performances involved special circumstances:
  1. On the final day of the 1978 regular season, David Thompson and George Gervin scored 73 and 63 points respectively in separate games, with Gervin beating out Thompson 27.22 ppg to 27.15 ppg in the closest scoring title race ever. Neither game had any significance other than the battle for the scoring title, both players were force fed the ball and both players' teams lost despite their exploits.
  2. Similarly, David Robinson dropped a career-high 71 points on the L.A. Clippers in the final game of the 1994 regular season to beat out Shaquille O'Neal and claim the only scoring title of the Admiral's career. At least Robinson's Spurs won but this was another instance of a player being force fed (Robinson only had two other 50 point games in his entire career, unlike players such as Chamberlain, Bryant and Jordan who regularly exceeded the 50 point barrier)
  3. Larry Bird tallied the only 60 point game of his career in a 126-115 Boston win over Atlanta in 1985; with the game well in hand, the Celtics repeatedly fouled the Hawks to get the ball back so Bird could keep firing away and he needed a buzzer beating jumper in order to reach 60.
Thompson, Gervin, Robinson and Bird still had to make the shots but their career-high performances hardly came within the normal context of the game. The most remarkable thing about Bryant's 81 point game is that his Lakers actually needed those points to come back from an 18 point second half deficit. Bryant shot 28-46 from the field but was not satisfied; he recently told ESPN that he missed some easy shots and should have actually scored 90 points! Not surprisingly, when ESPN polled several NBA stars to ask how likely it is that anyone would break Chamberlain's record Bryant was the only player who said that he thinks it will be broken; heck, Bryant is probably thinking that if he were five years younger with two fully healthy wheels he'd love to take another crack at topping the century mark. Gary Pomerantz says that to score 100 points you have to not just want to do so but need to do so and Bryant certainly has that Chamberlain-size ego.

It has been an interesting week for Bryant, the NBA's lion in winter who is leading the league in scoring (28.8 ppg) and ranks fifth in minutes (38.0 mpg) despite having logged more than 41,000 minutes in the regular season alone during his 16 year career; guards who have logged that many minutes over that many years simply do not play at an All-NBA level (by the time Jordan surpassed the 41,000 regular season minute mark he was nearing the end of his career as a 39 year old Washington Wizard struggling to score 20 ppg for a sub-.500 team); the week began with Bryant kicking off the All-Star Game gunning for both MVP honors and Jordan's NBA career All-Star scoring record (and second place overall in ABA-NBA All-Star scoring history behind Julius Erving) but Bryant's quest was almost derailed by a vicious Dwyane Wade foul that broke Bryant's nose, inflicted a mild concussion and caused soft tissue damage in Bryant's neck. That combination of injuries only managed to slow Bryant long enough to go to the sidelines so that the trainer could stop Bryant's nose from bleeding; Bryant refused to stuff cotton up his nose and did not even think of leaving the game. Only after the game did doctors realize the full extent of Bryant's injuries; Bryant said that he felt "weird" after absorbing Wade's blow but that he had never played with a concussion and it was "interesting" to experience this. It is safe to say that Bryant is wired differently than most people. Bryant subsequently received medical clearance and did not miss the Lakers' next game, dropping 31 points (plus eight assists and seven rebounds) in a 104-85 win versus Minnesota on Wednesday night.

Bryant denied feeling any ill well toward Wade, even saying that Wade is a nicer guy than he is (Bryant may not have meant that as a compliment...). Coincidentally or not, Bryant also denied viewing Wade as any kind of rival: "He's too young. He's too young. When I came into the league, he was in elementary school." Bryant added that he has outlasted the individual rivals from his peer group (Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady) and that, while the San Antonio Spurs have been a great team rival to Bryant's Lakers, Tim Duncan was an individual rival for Shaquille O'Neal, not Bryant. Bryant said that the only rivals left for him now are historical rivals, mainly Magic Johnson (who, like Bryant, owns five championship rings) and Michael Jordan (who won his six championship rings in a pair of 1990s three-peats). Bryant has talked a lot recently about wanting just one more championship and it is pretty clear that to Bryant the significance of that accomplishment would be that he would pass Johnson and pull even with Jordan (no one is catching Bill Russell's 11 rings for 10 fingers).

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Bryant owned the most complete skill set in the NBA for the better part of the 2000s--though O'Neal and Duncan were even more valuable players in the early part of the decade due to their paint dominance--and he should have won three MVPs (2006-08) but will probably have to settle for just the one that he received in 2008. LeBron James surpassed Bryant as a regular season performer in the 2009 season and should already be a three-time MVP but the backlash from James' ill-conceived "Decision" cost him the 2011 MVP; Derrick Rose is a great player but James should have won the MVP last season. James decisively outplayed Rose in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals but then James authored arguably the worst NBA Finals performance ever by a player who averaged at least 25 ppg during the regular season (James' scoring average plummeted by 8.9 ppg--more than any such player's scoring average has ever dropped--and he hardly made up for this in any other aspect of the game).

James' performance so far this season is off the charts good--he is not only posting his typical 28-8-7 stat line but he has vastly improved his shooting percentages across the board (FG%, 3FG% and FT%) while slashing his three point field goal attempts and operating with deadly efficiency in the post. In a recent game versus Portland he played all five positions defensively and put up a stat line that the Elias Sports Bureau says has never been seen since the NBA began officially counting turnovers in 1977-78: 38 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, five steals and no turnovers. Magic Johnson famously played multiple positions in game six of the 1980 NBA Finals and Julius Erving pulled off some multi-positional wizardry for the New York Nets (Erving occasionally jumped center in addition to logging his regular minutes at forward and sometimes shifting to backcourt duty) but James may be the only player in pro basketball history who has the size, speed and skill set to legitimately play extended minutes at any position on the court (perhaps Maurice Stokes fit that bill as well but it is difficult to think of anyone else who could seamlessly shift from center to forward to guard). Barring something exceptional happening, if James does not win this year's MVP in a landslide all of the voters who bypass James should immediately resign--and the people who kept saying that the Heat are "Dwyane Wade's team" sure look pretty foolish now.

Of course, none of James' versatility and none of his gaudy stats will matter if he is once again an innocent bystander while a less heralded star leads a less talented team to victory over the Heat in the playoffs. For several years now during the regular season James has vividly showed the world exactly what it looks like when his mind and his talents are fully engaged on the basketball court, which is why it is so glaring when he quits the way that he did against Boston in the 2010 playoffs. We know that Bryant is a stone cold killer at playoff time. Some critics accused Chamberlain of being a stat chaser but Chamberlain silenced all but the most biased observers after he was the dominant force on two of the greatest single season teams in NBA history (the 1967 NBA champion 76ers and the 1972 NBA champion Lakers). There is a stat chasing element to how James plays but, unlike Chamberlain, he has yet to add the all important title "NBA champion" to his otherwise impeccable resume. James came up short in the 2006 FIBA World Championship, he took a backseat while Bryant saved the day in the fourth quarter of the Olympic gold medal game in 2008 and he blatantly quit in both the 2010 and 2011 NBA playoffs. I have never seen a player as talented as James so repeatedly and dramatically shrink from the big moment; most great players relish the opportunity to take over a close game down the stretch but, after a few good playoff efforts as an underdog early in his career, James has hardly embraced the playoff spotlight when he is facing an elite team. The idea that James is not shrinking but is merely a pass first player is nonsense; James has the third highest regular season scoring average in pro basketball history (27.7 ppg) and even the great players who truly were pass first players--like Magic Johnson and John Stockton--did not hesitate to take (and make) big shots in playoff competition. Johnson looked past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--the all-time leading scorer in NBA history--and shot the "junior, junior skyhook" over the outstretched arms of two Celtics to win the pivotal game four of the 1987 NBA Finals, so when James defers to Udonis Haslem (?!) at the end Friday's loss to Utah after padding his stats for the whole fourth quarter there is a lot more at play than James being a pass first player.

That is why it is significant and telling that James not only declined to challenge Bryant at the end of the All-Star Game but he literally threw the ball as far away as he could, a bizarre action by a great scorer who is also usually an uncannily accurate cross court passer; it looked like James could not get the ball out of his hands fast enough. Yes, this was just an exhibition game but that moment revealed something about James' character and it is something that we have seen repeatedly in important games, as outlined in the previous paragraph. When James passed up the chance to take a game-winning three pointer (or drive to the hoop for a tying bucket), Bryant trash-talked James not to mock James but to lament that James had squandered an opportunity for both of them: "It was more so the challenge that I wanted. I wanted him to try to score. I wanted that challenge [to guard him]. So, I was more upset than anything that I didn't get a chance to face that."

At the rate James is going he may very well break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record for regular season MVPs (six) and his numbers may cause the "stat gurus" to enter into their own form of Rapture but if he does not change his approach to pressure situations then he will "achieve" the dubious honor of being the greatest player who never won a championship and 10 years from now people will be struggling to figure out how a team as talented as the Heat never broke through. The Heat are more talented than many of the teams that have won championships in the past 15-20 years--Bryant won back to back titles alongside a player who had been a one-time All-Star prior to joining the Lakers and a third option who the Dallas Mavericks just sent to the D League, while James is playing alongside two top 15 players--but if James quits when the going gets tough then they will once again fall short of their ultimate goal; the better that James plays during the regular season the more pressure he puts on himself to match that level of play when everything is on the line--and there is little indication thus far in James' career that he responds well to that kind of pressure.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:19 AM

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Thursday, March 01, 2012

Interview With Gary Pomerantz, Author of Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era

March 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."

Friedman: "Right."

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."

***************

Further Reading:

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)

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:00 AM

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Durant Shoots His Way to MVP Honors, Bryant Surpasses Jordan on All-Star Career Scoring List

Kevin Durant played the most minutes, took the most shots and poured in 36 points to earn his first All-Star Game MVP as his West squad cruised to a 21 point lead but had to survive a late rally before defeating the East 152-149. Durant shot a very efficient 14-25 from the field--including 3-8 from three point range--and he also contributed seven rebounds, three assists and three steals. Durant made his intentions obvious right from the start--scoring 13 first quarter points on 5-9 field goal shooting while playing all 12 minutes--and after the game he mentioned that he had spoken with West Coach Scott Brooks (who of course coaches Durant for the Oklahoma City Thunder) about his desire to play a lot of minutes; Durant played 37:23, nearly three minutes more than the playing time of any other player, with second place honors going to the seemingly ageless and indefatigable Kobe Bryant. Bryant also came out with both barrels blazing, scoring 11 first quarter points on 5-6 field goal shooting. He finished with 27 points on 9-17 field goal shooting and along the way he broke Michael Jordan's NBA career All-Star scoring record of 262 points; Bryant has now scored 271 points in All-Star competition, second on the all-time ABA-NBA All-Star scoring list behind Julius Erving, who scored 321 points in 16 All-Star games (five ABA, 11 NBA). Bryant is a 14-time All-Star but he really has only played in 12 full All-Star Games: he missed the 2010 contest due to injury and an injury limited him to a token three minute appearance in the 2008 contest. Bryant also lost a potential All-Star Game appearance to the 1999 lockout. LeBron James led the East with 36 points on 15-23 field goal shooting, including an incredible second half run when he made nine straight shots. James also had seven assists and six rebounds. James' Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade joined James (2011) and Michael Jordan (1997) as just the third player to post an All-Star Game triple double (24 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists).

Wade fouled Bryant in the game's strangest play--and the play that could potentially have the most impact (no pun intended): neither team offered much defensive resistance until the closing minutes of the fourth quarter but when Bryant blew by Wade with a spin move on the left block early in the third quarter Wade grabbed Bryant around the head and whacked Bryant in the face hard enough to draw some blood from Bryant's nose. The TNT announcers joked about how the play seemed to be out of the context of the game's relaxed vibe but Wade really could have been called for a flagrant foul for making unnecessary contact above the shoulder and I will not be surprised if it turns out that Bryant has a broken nose. Bryant did not visibly react to the injury and he stayed in the game, though the trainer did have to do some treatment to stop the bleeding. You can bet that if Wade had taken a similar shot to the face the NBA would have had to airlift him to an emergency trauma center (remember, Wade once required a wheelchair to leave the court after suffering a shoulder injury). Bryant made both free throws but only scored eight points the rest of the way.

Durant, Bryant, James and Wade clearly established themselves as the game's four major MVP candidates but each of those stars had at least one bad play in the final two minutes when the result was in doubt: Durant carelessly threw the ball away to Deron Williams for an easy layup, Bryant only split a pair of free throws to give the East a chance to tie (or even win with a three pointer), Wade did his Wes Welker impression by dropping a pass that should have resulted in a layup and James inexplicably threw a soft cross court pass that got stolen instead of attempting a game-winning three or driving for a game-tying two. Any of those errors could have potentially changed the outcome but James' unwillingness to take the last shot in an exhibition game that he had dominated for long stretches is as inexplicable as the way that he disappeared in the clutch during the 2011 NBA Finals.

The lack of defensive intensity/competitiveness seen during most of the All-Star Game mirrored what we almost always see in the various iterations of what is now called the Rising Stars Challenge; that Friday night event is clearly a game played by young people (first and second year players) for young people (the arena is usually filled with kids, many of whom are admitted free or at reduced costs) and it showcases the players' remarkable athletic ability but I wish that those players understood that what is really captivating is not an uncontested dunk but a contested dunk. Several years ago, Julius Erving told me that he is disappointed with the way that All-Star Games are played in the current era: "Today's game, some of these All-Star Games, players have figured out a way to allow guys to dunk the ball and not have it perceived as the guy dunking on somebody. When I was coming up, you rarely could dunk on people and people did not want to get dunked on, it was almost like being 'posterized' if somebody dunked on you. Guys tried their best not to let anybody dunk on them. Sometimes they would just grab you rather than let you dunk. That seems to be lost somewhere in what I see with a lot of the high wire act performances. It is almost like, 'I'm going to let the guy dunk. And I'm going to get far enough out of the picture so nobody is perceiving this as me being dunked on or being posterized.' I don't understand the mentality of just letting a guy go in there and throw it down and applauding it, if he's wearing a different colored uniform. It's just playing to the crowd but I think that the crowd would respect and appreciate a play being made when somebody is trying to contest it. I think it makes for a great photo-op and a great poster if somebody is there. I remember being in Madison Square Garden and going up for a dunk and Lonnie Shelton was there and my knees were up on his shoulders. He was trying to draw a charge, I guess. Looking at that shot, when somebody is there, it is poetry in motion. Just throwing the ball up and going through the motions, I guess guys don't want to get hurt. I like watching the dunk contests—but I don't like a game to turn into a dunk contest with no defense. That does nothing for me." My favorite play of this year's Rising Stars Challenge was when John Wall tried to toss an alley-oop to himself at the end of the blowout and Greg Monroe jumped in Wall's path to steal the ball. If Wall is so enthused about doing uncontested dunks then he should sign up for the Slam Dunk Contest.

Speaking of the Slam Dunk Contest, I mean no disrespect to the four young players who participated and who seemed to be trying their best--but the format was terrible and most of the dunks were not particularly inspiring. I guess letting the fans vote on the winner is OK but having just one vote at the end drains the event of any drama because viewers (and the contestants) have no way to know who is winning. If the fans are going to vote then the voting should be done after each round. As for the dunks, there were at least five All-Star Game dunks that were better than anything we saw in the Slam Dunk Contest (though Jeremy Evans' two ball dunk off of Gordon Hayward's two simultaneous lobs was nice). The original charm of the Slam Dunk Contest, going all the way back to its 1976 ABA roots, was that we saw Hall of Fame bound players performing dunks that they could (and did) actually do during games: Julius Erving took off from the free throw line in both the 1976 and 1984 Slam Dunk Contests (and he dunked from just a step inside the free throw line as a 35 year old in the 1985 Slam Dunk Contest!) but he also dunked from the free throw line in the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Game. Julius Erving, David Thompson, Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins did in-game dunks in Slam Dunk Contests--and that is much more exciting than watching unheralded players doing various gimmick dunks. Most importantly, the Slam Dunk Contest must do away with the clock and must minimize the number of missed dunk attempts that are permitted; despite his perfect 50 for his free throw line dunk--an amazing feat for a 34 year old--Erving lost the 1984 Slam Dunk Contest to Larry Nance because Erving missed a dunk. I think that this was overly harsh and that a player should be permitted to either drop one dunk from his score or attempt a do-over--but there should not be more than one do-over. Repeated do-overs drain the life out of the event. I also think that props--other than perhaps using a second ball, an act that showcases a player's big hands and his hang time--should be eliminated.

The Three Point Shootout did not seem as great as it has been in years past but that may just be a subjective impression; the final round scores seemed low (Kevin Love defeated Kevin Durant 17-14) but I checked the record book and saw that--contrary to what people may think--three-time winner Larry Bird really only had one lights out final round performance (22 points in 1986) and that his other two winning scores were rather pedestrian (16 in 1987, 17 in 1988). I liked Anthony Morrow's Drazen Petrovic jersey tribute (before the event I actually thought that Morrow would win but he did not even make it out of the first round).

The Skills Competition and the Shooting Stars Competition may not thrill younger audiences but I like both events; in the former the players are required to actually use fundamental skills, while the latter provides a way for WNBA players and retired NBA players to participate in All-Star Weekend.

For me, the real highlight of the 2012 All-Star Weekend was Mel Daniels finally receiving a long overdue call from the Hall of Fame.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:34 AM

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