THE SPORTS PHILOSOPHER: The Day I Angered the Goliath of Hoops … And Lived to Tell About It by Brad Eastland

March 8, 2010
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      Okay, here’s the thing.






      The pro basketball season is too long.   It’s a grind.   The season takes forever to make its way to the playoffs, and then the playoffs take forever.   It’s because too many teams make the playoffs.   In fact there are too many teams.    Period.   The talent pool is diluted and polluted, if you’ll permit me this two-ply watery metaphor.   Too many teams suck.   The game is too slow.   Too much walking the ball up court and then settling into a boring half-court offense.   Too much traveling, too much carrying it over, too many defensive fouls called that shouldn’t be called, and too many offensive fouls that are never called.   And of course since it’s the NBA there’s always too much scandal, too much off-the-court crime, too many tattoos, and too many children sired by frisky superstars out of wedlock.   It’s a mess.

 Okay.   Enough of the negatives.   I’m sure you already agree with me about that stuff anyway.   And if you don’t, start.   Because I’m right.   Okay?      The issue is how do I keep you all entertained basketballwise while we wait to see if Kobe and LeBron get to play against each other in the finals while we concurrently, collectively, keep from killing ourselves out of boredom?

      I think I know what to start with.   Or rather who.


      Wilton Norman Chamberlain.   Wilt the Stilt.   Goliath.   The Big Dipper.   Chairman of the Boards.   He was the Babe Ruth of basketball….or perhaps Babe Ruth was the Wilt Chamberlain of baseball.   Either or.   That’s how dominant Wilt’s influence was on the game he played—he was positively Ruthian. 

      What gave me the idea to talk about Wilt today is that last week—March 2nd to be exact—marked the 48th anniversary of The Big Dipper’s greatest triumph, his 100-point game.   That’s right.   On March 2nd, 1962, playing center for the Philadelphia Warriors, Wilt Chamberlain made 36 field goals and 28 free throws in a game against the New York Knickerbockers.   A hundred points.   Not in a week, in one game.   More on that in a moment.

      But first, it behooves me to make a few appropriate remarks concerning Wilt’s basketball legacy.   Because I get the feeling that a lot of folks out there have either barely heard of Wilt Chamberlain or—zounds!—have not heard of him at all.   Which is sad.   Never mind that he ruled the NBA way back in the 60s, before Reality TV and Twitter gave our lives meaning.   That’s not a good enough excuse.   I mean George Washington lived over 200 years ago, and we’ve all heard of him.   

      Back to Wilt’s accomplishments.   I hardly know where to begin.   How about seven scoring titles, eleven rebounding titles, and nine field goal percentage titles?   How about the 1967-68 season, when, as befits basketball’s best-passing pivotman ever, he became the only center to ever lead the league in assists.   No other center has ever come close.   How about rebounding?   Nowadays if a guy gets ten or twelve rebounds the press goes bonkers and the Dow plummets.   The 7-foot, 2-inch Chamberlain once grabbed 55 rebounds in a single game.   He once scored 41 points and grabbed 40 rebounds in the same game.   Of the top 45 rebounding games of all time, Wilt has 25 of them.   Of the top 68 scoring games of all time, Wilt has 49 of them.   In the 1961-62 season he averaged over 50 points a game.   That’s right; I said averaged.   It’s hard to fathom.   Can you imagine a player today getting 35 points and grabbing 20 rebounds and the announcer stating categorically and with a straight face that the guy had a bad night???

      Wilt never got tired.   Maybe that came from being a track and field star in high school and college.   Maybe it was just a gift from God.   Maybe, perhaps, it had something to do with his bizarre claim to have bedded over 20,000 women.   I know the math doesn’t quite add up on that one; he probably put the decimal point in the wrong place.   But to even be able to make up a fib of that magnitude, and be even close to being believed, well, let’s just say it betrays a certain indefatigable quality.   How else can we explain that he almost never sat on the bench?   One year he averaged over 48 minutes played per game, which is pretty tough to do when you consider that an NBA game is only 48 minutes long.   But of course sometimes the games do go into overtime.   That year Wilt played 3,882 out of a possible 3,890 minutes.   He missed eight lousy minutes of action all year long.   What happened was he missed the last eight minutes of one game when he was tossed out for picking up two technical fouls for arguing.   It could not have been because he fouled out in the conventional way, i.e. picking up six personal fouls in a game, because Wilt never fouled out of an NBA game.   Not once.

      Perhaps the most compelling testimony to his greatness is that Wilt changed the game.   Literally.   Or rather the powers-that-be changed the game because of him, as in changed the rules.   In the old days players were allowed to leap above the rim, catch a pass above the cylinder, and just lay it in.   But after watching Wilt do that several hundred times they instituted the “offensive goaltending” rule, making it a violation to touch the ball above the invisible “cone” above the hoop, a rule which still stands.   In the old days the “key” used to be only 12 feet wide.   But after watching Wilt score at will throughout his first five years in the league they widened the key to its present-day width of 16 feet.   Because of him.   It’s a rule which obviously makes it harder for post-up players to score, because an offensive player isn’t allowed to spend more than three seconds in the key.  

      The new rule worked on everyone.   Except Wilt.   He still scored at will.   

      And speaking of scoring, we now return to Wilt’s 100-point explosion of March 2nd, 1962.   Scoring 100 points in a game was such an accomplishment that even my father—not even close to a basketball fan back then—mentioned it.   We were living in Iowa at the time, I was six years old, we were driving home from somewhere, alone, and my dad says, “Hey son, didja hear Wilt Chamberlain scored a hundred points?”   It was the very first time in my life my old man had ever talked to me about professional sports of any kind.   I felt proud, honored; and then replied, “Who’s Wilt Chamberlain?”

      In a sense, it wasn’t considered that big a deal back then for a colossus of Wilt’s ilk to pour in a hundred points.   Because, for one thing, he regularly scored in the 60s.   For another, he already held the single-game scoring record of 78.   And the other reason is that hardly anyone actually saw the game.   The game was played in Hershey, Pennsylvania (of all places) the same Hershey PA where the chocolate factory was, and the stench of chocolate regularly filled the air.   Most of the players couldn’t wait to get the hell out of town, and even though only a few NBA games a year were ever played in Hershey only 4,124 lucky souls showed up on that cold and rainy gray March evening to catch a glimpse of history.   And remember, this was 1962.   Only a few NBA games a year were televised, and this was not one of them.   And there was no such thing as ESPN.   Sadly, there is no film or videotape in existence to commemorate the event.

      Wilt himself was in no hurry to play in that particular game.   Legend has it that he had stayed the previous night in New York (where he lived) and was up all night “partying” with a female companion; something, as mentioned, that Wilt was certainly prone to do.   Otherwise occupied, The Big Dipper (sorry, I couldn’t resist) reportedly got no rest, never mind sleep, and the big fella didn’t board the train to nearby Philadelphia until 8:00 a.m.   Nursing a hangover.   Truth be told, probably even a lot less than 4,124 people would have shown up if it wasn’t for the fact that that night there was an exhibition basketball game right before the real one, featuring nearby Philadelphia’s pro football team, the Eagles, versus the Baltimore Colts.   Football players playing hoops?   Guys scoring 100 points?   Chocolate fouling the air?   What a weird night that must have been….

      Right from the opening center jump Wilt began to pile up the points.   A few minutes into it the score was 19-3 and Wilt had 13 of the 19.   He had 23 points at the end of the 1st quarter, 41 at the half.   No big deal, though.   Wilt often had 30 or 35 points at the half that season.   Business as usual.  

      But then the Warriors’ coach, Frank McGuire, got his team together and announced his visionary 2nd-half strategy: “Wilt is always open, so pass him the ball.”   Brilliant.

      After three quarters Wilt had amassed 69 points.   The crowd began screaming, “Give it to Wilt!   Give it to Wilt!”   Aside from anyone associated with the Knicks, 100 points was now clearly everyone’s goal.    The game soon deteriorated into a farce.   The rival Knicks players started fouling everyone on the Warriors except Wilt.   The Warriors replied by immediately fouling everyone on the Knicks in order to get the ball back right away and save the clock.   Wilt was being double, triple, even quadruple teamed.   But it didn’t matter.   With 46 seconds to go he slam-dunked an alley-oop pass for points 99 and 100, and the crowd, small as it was, went berserk.   Over 200 spectators stormed the court.   Mere mortals grabbed and clawed at the newly crowned god of hoops.   They had to stop the game for nine minutes until order could be restored.   The game resumed.   Wilt reportedly just stood at center court for those final 46 seconds, calmly and motionless, just waiting for the game to end.   Final score, in a defensive struggle: Warriors 169, New York 147.   Wilt had reached the century mark.   Triple digits.  

      Hard to believe that it’s been 48 years since my dad asked me if I’d heard that Wilt had bagged those 100 points….

       Wilt had his detractors.   “No one roots for Goliath,” he was often wont to say.   In their day the Celtics’ Bill Russell—Chamberlain’s arch rival—was often celebrated as the better player, Russell’s supporters citing Big Bill’s astounding 11 championships; never mind that basketball is a team game and Russell was routinely surrounded by fleets of Hall-of-Fame superstars, whereas Wilt was thus complemented only occasionally.   And in the modern era, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and even Shaquille O’Neal (give me a break) are usually ranked above Wilt on greatest-player lists.

      And yet, after digesting all this delightful information, it is my hope that perhaps now you are thinking it’s sort of silly to refer to anyone else other than Wilt as the greatest player in basketball history.   And you’d be right.

      In addition to his enormous basketball talents, one other thing that distinguished Chamberlain from all other basketball players and virtually all other athletes was his great physical strength.   Wilt’s strength was downright legendary.   He lifted weights, and that only magnified his natural physical gifts, his natural, nearly superhuman power.   He once dunked a ball so hard he was said to have broken an opponent’s toe. (think about it).   Tom Heinsohn likes to tell the story of one time when Wilt snatched Heinsohn’s Boston Celtics teammate K.C. Jones right out of the air as he drove to the basket “like he was a fly”, his (K.C.’s) legs “still moving in the air” as Wilt held him aloft.   Bob Lanier, a Hall-of-Fame center and a huge man in his own right, once remarked that in one game Wilt lifted him up “like a coffee cup” in order to gain inside position.   But here’s my favorite: In college, at the University of Kansas, Wilt was once reputed to have been challenged by a Kansas football player and noted weightlifter to a weightlifting contest; the other young man, cocky, burly and powerful, reached down his meaty hands, grabbed the bar, rose to a standing position, and then curled a huge amount of weight before tossing the bar rudely back to the floor.   Wilt then calmly reached down and picked up the same bar and also curled it….but with only one hand.

      Don’t’cha just love stories like that?

      On that note, we now we come to that point in the column where your loyal correspondent shrewdly interjects himself into the story, to give it depth and that all-important “personal” touch.   Because a long time ago I myself learned a little something about that legendary strength.   The hard way.   

      It was 1971.   I was a sophomore in high school.   I didn’t even have my driver’s license yet.   But I loved basketball, ‘loved the Lakers.   So one night I tagged along to a Lakers game at the old Forum with a couple friends of mine who were seniors, who could drive.   Wilt was a Laker by this time, nearing the end of his career.   But he was still the greatest and most dominant player in the game.

      And the scariest.   Wilt was at heart a gentle soul (that’s why he never killed anyone on the court, even though they pounded on him unmercifully to keep him from scoring), but he looked mean.   And on this particular night the Lakers lost, so The Big Dipper was in a foul mood.   He tried to sneak out to his car via a side exit used to process garbage, but my high school friends and I (and about 30 other canny autograph seekers) spied him.   (I guess when you are a black man in a white shirt and you are over seven feet tall and wearing orange slacks, it’s hard to be inconspicuous.)

      Wilt slowly made his way to his car, signing autographs as he went.   Being young and stupid, I didn’t have anything substantial for him to write on, no program, no writing tablet, nothing.   Except my tiny ticket stub.   So not only was I stupid, now I felt stupid.   But I was also brave.   Sort of.    I worked my way up to where I was standing directly in front of the great man.   Sign my ticket, Wilt?” I piped up, in my high nasally voice; my voice hadn’t changed yet.   I was a mess in 10th grade.   Anyway, I held out my ticket stub, but realized immediately that he would surely not sign something so inconveniently small and pulled my hand away….but Wilt surprisingly reached out his hand to take it, just as I was pulling my hand back….so he pulled his hand back….but by this time I was re-extending my hand, thinking he might actually sign it….amazingly, he again reached his huge hand out to accept the tiny ticket stub….but yet again I comically retracted my hand in defeat….anyway, we danced this dance for about five or six seconds, Wilt becoming more and more irritated, until……………….…      

      I then experienced one of those watershed moments a young man experiences in his life.   One of those moments he can’t help but remember and could not possibly ever forget.

      He grabbed me.

      Wilt Chamberlain grabbed me.

      No, he didn’t grab me by the throat, thank the gods.   Or even by the shoulders.   What he did in his frustration was slam his huge hands down onto my wrists and squeeze them.   Hard.   My heart stopped.   My skinny, high-voiced throat clotted shut.   When my heart started up again it raced like a rabbit’s.   I looked up into Wilt’s angry glare, his famous goateed face, his dark penetrating eyes, waiting to die.   What I remember to this day was his unholy power.   It wasn’t just that I was a skinny high school kid and he was a huge muscular athlete.   It was that legendary, over-the-top, superhuman strength I’d heard so much about before and since.   I could feel it.   I felt like he could—if he so desired—have yanked my captive wrists to the side and torn my arms from their sockets.   Easily.  

      My two friends and all the other autograph seekers froze and stared with dropped jaws, waiting for Wilt to kill me.

      Obviously he did not, for if he did you would not be reading this sentence.   He grabbed the ticket stub out of my hand, scribbled his name and handed it back.   Glaring at me all the while.   To this day I am shocked that I did not lose control of my bowels and soil myself.   Maybe I did, and I’ve just blocked it from my memory.   Driving home—with my two so-called friends laughing uncontrollably in the front seat—it took about 20 minutes for my heart to return to its normal pace.   And then I felt good about it.   Because I survived.   And I owned a ticket stub signed by Wilt Chamberlain.

      Which I soon lost.   Don’t know how, don’t know where.   God, kids are stupid sometimes.  

      Wilt Chamberlain died on October 12th, 1999, from complications surrounding a bad heart.   Hard to believe that sports’ most indestructible and most tireless gladiator could ever have been stricken with a bad heart.   But he was.   He was only 63 years old.

      Sure wish I still had that ticket stub….

meet….The Sports Philosopher

Brad "I wilted in front of the big dipper" Eastland

Brad "I wilted in front of the big dipper" Eastland

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, basketball raconteur, and sports nut, in no particular order.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written four novels and over 20 short-stories.    Samples of his best fiction work can be discovered within the links below :







2 Responses to “THE SPORTS PHILOSOPHER: The Day I Angered the Goliath of Hoops … And Lived to Tell About It by Brad Eastland”

  1. I agree that Wilt was the greatest player to ever play, and I am glad someone was able to put this is writing so succinctly. The statistics in this piece would certainly support this opinion. (Amazing how often I agree with the author). Growing up in Long Beach, he was a local hero for the Lakers, and I remember those games from my childhood and teen years. I especially remember the rivalry with Bill Russell, sort of a local anti-hero for us. I liked how Brad pointed out how Wilt changed the game, which IS the most compelling testimony to his greatness. I would sure like to hear Jerry West’s comments on the subject. Very enjoyable article; glad you survived your encounter with Goliath.


  1. Rest in Peace, ‘Three Dog’ by the Sports Philosopher

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