Rewinding Basketball’s Clock To a Record-Setting Moment

Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era, by Gary M. Pomerantz. Crown, 288 pages, $24.95.

This is the Age of Subtitles. If you write a serious work of historical nonfiction, you’ve got to come up with a good title-and also a subtitle that says everything the title doesn’t. And that’s not all: Your subtitle is also supposed to make your book sound important. So, in this case, following the elegant Wilt, 1962, we’ve got The Night of 100 Points-so far, so good-and the Dawn of a New Era … which is, putting it politely, a stretch.

It’s become obligatory, when writing a book about a black professional athlete, to argue not only that this athlete was both talented and interesting, but also that he changed his sport. Or sports in general. Or America. The latter case in particular is a tough one to make, and yet futile attempts have been made in books about Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Hank Aaron. I know, because I’ve read all of them.

Fortunately, Gary Pomerantz doesn’t waste much time trying to keep the promise of his subtitle’s second half. There’s simply no evidence that America, or professional sports, or even professional basketball, would’ve been appreciably different if “the Dipper”-the nickname Chamberlain greatly preferred to “Wilt the Stilt”-had scored, say, 93 points rather than 100. Or even if he’d never existed.

Wilt Chamberlain was a great player, of course, but it wasn’t the sort of greatness that other players could emulate. Both 7-foot-2 and immensely strong and fast, he competed in college track events and once lost an arm-wrestling match to Jim Brown-but only after 23 minutes. Chamberlain’s skills simply weren’t available to other players of his time, and to precious few in later years. Moreover, the athleticism that would eventually be considered emblematic of black basketball players was first exemplified not by Chamberlain, but rather by high-flying Elgin Baylor, who came into the league a year before Chamberlain.

Chamberlain’s presence didn’t do much to boost the N.B.A.’s popularity. In 1962, Chamberlain’s third season, the league still resorted to gimmicks like four-team double-headers and games in non-N.B.A. cities like Providence, Dayton, Utica and, of course, Hershey, Penn. Chamberlain’s team, the Philadelphia Warriors, suffered declining attendance in Chamberlain’s second and third seasons with the team. A few months after he scored his 100 points, the franchise moved to San Francisco.

O.K., so the subtitle’s deceptive. Get over it, Mr. Reviewer.

Historical nonfiction isn’t about demonstrating that the subject changed the world; it’s about the author packing us into his personal time machine, taking us back a few decades, and making us feel like we’re there. Oh, and there’s another test: In a book like this, the author must avoid the temptation to include all the material that would belong in a full-fledged biography, while including enough to draw vivid portraits of the primary actors in the drama. Mr. Pomerantz, who’s written books about post–Civil War Atlanta and the 1995 crash of a commuter aircraft in a Georgia hayfield, passes with flying colors.

There were no television cameras in the Hershey Sports Arena on March 2, 1962; precious few photographs were taken; only the fourth quarter of the radio broadcast has been preserved; and barely 4,000 customers showed up that night. Nevertheless, thanks to Mr. Pomerantz’s keen imagination and (particularly) the 250-plus interviews he conducted, there’s not a page of the book that doesn’t crackle with perfectly chosen detail. Now, about that night ….

From the moment Wilt Chamberlain arrived in the N.B.A. with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959, various observers predicted that he would someday score 100 points in a game. Early in the 1961-62 season, Chamberlain scored 78 points to break Elgin Baylor’s single-game record. Afterward, Baylor-who scored 63 points in the same game, his Lakers beating Chamberlain’s Warriors-told Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn, “Hey, don’t worry about it. The Big Fella is going to get one hundred one night real soon.” A few months later, there was another clue: In the three games prior to the Big Fella’s big game, he scored 67, 65, and 61 points. If he could average 64 points over three games, adding another 36 obviously wasn’t completely out of the question.

Still, like nearly every significant single-game or single-season record, Chamberlain’s 100 points wouldn’t have happened in the absence of a perfect storm. The enemy personnel was convenient: The New York Knicks’ starting center, 6-foot-10 Phil Jordon, spent the evening in a hotel room, suffering the effects of a flu bug and perhaps also a hangover; Jordon’s replacement, Darrall Imhoff, was just as tall as Jordon and a few pounds heavier, but Imhoff spent most of the game on the bench due to foul troubles, and the Knicks had only one other player taller than 6-foot-6. With the season nearly over, neither team was especially excited about playing defense; in addition to Chamberlain’s record, the teams combined for a record 316 points, with the losing Knicks scoring 147.

And, finally, there was Hershey. Playing in a town of roughly 12,000, with virtually no press coverage-not a single New York newspaper sent anybody to cover the contest-the players seem to have approached the proceedings as something like an exhibition game, with little at stake (the Knicks were out of playoff contention, the Warriors had already locked up their spot). When it looked like Chamberlain might reach 100 points, the Knicks fouled his teammates to keep the ball out of his hands, and the Warriors responded by fouling Knicks to stop the clock. And the Hershey Sports Arena might have helped. Chamberlain was famous for his poor free-throw shooting, and in this season he would make only 61.3 percent of his foul shots (which turned out to be the best percentage of his career). But in this game, he converted 28 of 32 (nearly 90 percent), and he probably had some help. As Mr. Pomerantz writes, with his typical feel for the minutiae that matter, “the rims in Hershey were, well, like magnets …. They were old, soft, and forgiving; to put the ball near the hoop in Hershey meant, with a good roll, it was apt to fall in.”

Chamberlain took a lot of shots that night, and made a great many more than he missed. The same might fairly be said of Gary Pomerantz and Wilt, 1962.

Rob Neyer is a baseball columnist with ESPN.com and used to root for the Kansas City Kings.