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Wilt and Me

Sunday, September 12, 2010

It was the most legendary individual single-game performance in professional basketball history: March 2, 1962, when 25 year-old Wilt “The Big Dipper” Chamberlain scored 100 points for his Philadelphia Warriors team in a 169-147 victory over the New York Knicks.

I wish
Every basketball fan knows about it. Nearly fifty years later the record remains unbroken and likely always will. The closest anyone has come to breaking it is Kobe Bryant, who scored 81 points in a game in January, 2006. Only four thousand people attended Wilt's game, which was played in a half-empty hockey arena in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The Warriors were safely in the playoffs by this point, and the Knicks safely out, so little was at stake as the season wound to a close. No television or film footage of the game exists. No New York reporters were there, and less than a handful of other journalists. Two photographers were there, one left after the first quarter and the other snapped just a few photos.

Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era (Three Rivers Press, 2005), by Gary Pomerantz, tells the story of that game based primarily on hundreds of interviews the author conducted with many of those who played in it or watched it. In reconstructing the numerous stories that converged on and then diverged from that historic contest, Pomerantz crafts the claim that the game served as a symbolic announcement of the definitive arrival of a new style of basketball and of “the ascendancy of the black superstar in professional basketball,” and, in that sense, formed part of the massive assertion of African-American culture and rights that developed throughout the period.

I saw Wilt in person one time, saw him play I mean. Probably a fair number of people my age or older who lived in Philadelphia or Los Angeles or even other NBA cities can say the same thing. But I didn’t grow up there. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and, to this day, I’m the only person I know besides my Dad, who took me to the game, who ever saw Wilt play in person.

We moved to Madison from Portland, Oregon in July, 1968, the summer I turned three. Though I can’t remember that summer, many of my earliest, and happiest, memories from our first few years in Madison involve basketball. My dad and oldest brother dug a posthole, poured concrete, and put a hoop up in our driveway in 1969. Not long after that, a second rim, bolted to a homemade backboard, around 7 feet off the ground for my benefit, was added to our basketball pole (soon to be painted with hot pink rust-proof paint). Of course, back then there was no cable television and basketball, especially pro, was still struggling to sell itself to fans, to advertisers, and to television executives so there weren’t a lot of games on television, and we had in Madison no home-town franchise.

I do remember watching some college games, especially the UCLA teams coached by the legendary John Wooden, perhaps the greatest, certainly the most dominant, college coach of all time. And I remember watching the NBA game of the week on CBS when that started during the 1973-4 season and, before that, occasional games on ABC. Playing with my older brother, who was a star on his junior high and then high school team, and watching games on TV with my dad were more than enough to get me out onto the driveway at every opportunity, dribbling around, counting down the seconds to the final buzzer in an imaginary championship game, heaving the still heavy ball up at my hoop, going crazy if it went in and restarting the countdown on account of a clock malfunction if it didn’t.

But an entirely new world was opened to me when I saw my first professional games in person. The Milwaukee Bucks joined the National Basketball League as an expansion franchise in the 1968-69 season.
When I was a boy, they played several games a year in Madison, either at the University of Wisconsin Field House or, more commonly, at the Dane County Coliseum. I don’t remember which was the first game I saw them play there. The truth is I don’t even remember for certain how many games I went to or which teams I saw them play.

Like most new franchises, the Bucks were bad in their first year, compiling a record of 27 wins and 55 losses. But then they drafted Lew Alcindor (later to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) out of UCLA and turned their fortunes around. In their second season they won 56 games and made it to the NBA finals, where they lost to the New York Knicks. Then they picked up Oscar Robertson, the veteran, superstar guard and in the 1970-71 season went 66-16 (88-18 counting their 10-0 preseason record and their 12-2 playoff record) and swept the Baltimore Bullets for the NBA Championship. That would be their only championship, but over the next three seasons – until Oscar retired and, a year after that, Kareem left for L.A. – they remained contenders.

I didn't see many Bucks' games, but I sure listened to a lot of them on the radio. Starting around the time I was 7, there was a lot of tension in my home when I was growing up. My siblings were teenagers so they argued amongst themselves a lot, and they also argued -- especially my oldest brother -- with my parents a lot. But above all, my parents fought with each other, especially at night after I'd gone to bed when, I assume, they thought I wouldn't hear. Everybody tried to be real careful about that. But my bedroom was right above the kitchen and I could hear. It seems like every night. Even if I couldn't make out -- or understand -- most of the words, the tones were unmistakable: my mother's low, mumbled stubbornness, my father's more punctuated, staccato bark. At that time, I had a little AM radio that was shaped like a cube. In fact, it was a dice.
It was red and its six sides had white spots on them. The volume and tuning dials were the "two" side of the dice. I'd put that radio as close as I could to my head on the pillow.

 Then the mesmerizing cadence and tone of Eddie Doucette's radio call would pull me away from the fading voices of adult unhappiness and disappointment and resentment, right through the radio to the Spectrum in Philadelphia, or Chicago Stadium, or the Milwaukee Arena -- Mecca as it was known, or Madison Square Garden (today all these arenas, if they even exist, are branded, called names like ATT Center, or Target Garden or what have you). And in these magical spaces, Eddie would comfort and excite me with his description of Kareem's sky-hooks, the Big O's fall-away jumper, and Bobby "the Greyhound" Dandridge's streaking fast-break lay-ups. I'd listen carefully when his color man, Ron "The Professor" Blomberg, would break down the plays and the strategy involved. And then, momentarily all child, I'd laugh when Eddie would interview Bango, the Bucks mascot. Bango, incidentally, was named after the exclamation Eddie coined for a Bucks' basket -- as in "Kareem, on the baseline, fed by Robertson, fakes the pass to Curtis Perry in the lane, turns to his left for the sky hook -- Bango!" and amuse me with his half-time interviews. A small-market franchise, Eddie would never be as widely famous as the big-market radio announcers, but he was more than enough for me and his call would serve as the template on which I'd base my own solitary adventures on the imaginary hardwood of the driveway. Sometimes I feel like I lived to hear the word Bango.

During those first six glorious seasons the Bucks played 20 games in Madison. As I said, I don’t remember for certain, with a few exceptions, exactly which games I attended. What I do remember very clearly are the bright lights of the coliseum, the plush fold out theater seats in the arena, and the cold outside walking from and to the parking lot on frigid Madison winter nights, snow plowed into mountain ranges lining the edges of the lot. I remember poring over and almost accidentally memorizing the facts and photos in the glossy programs. I remember the shiny wooden floor, the perfect glass backboards, the brightly painted lanes, the fancy cube-shaped scoreboard hanging above center court. I remember the warm-ups and the uniforms of the players when they’d peel their warm-ups off. Most of all, I remember the thrill and awe of the size of the players as they trotted in a line out of their locker rooms and onto the court for their pre-game warm-up routines.

There they were in person, so tall, so graceful, so real, so human: here were the Rockets’ Rudy Tomjonavich and little Calvin Murphy; there were Ernie DiGregorio and Bob McAdoo of the Braves; Walt Bellamy and Pistol Pete Maravich of the Hawks; Bob "Butterbean" Love, Chet Walker, and Jerry Sloan of the Bulls; Dave Bing, Bob "The Dobber" Lanier, and Jimmy Walker of the Pistons; Dave Cowens, Hondo John Havlicek, Jo Jo White of the Celtics; Lenny Wilkens, Austin Carr, and Jim Cleamons of the Cavs; Tiny Archibald of the Kings. If you aren’t a basketball fan, and of a certain age, these names won’t mean much to you. But they were legends of the game, many of them now in the Hall of Fame after successful playing and, in some cases, coaching careers. I’d seen them on TV, knew what college they played for, knew their stats and reputations. It sounds a little corny, but to me they were like figures from mythology come to life before my eyes.

And I had very strong feelings about them. On the face of it, those feelings were as simple and definite as a love of chocolate ice cream and a hatred for the smell of cauliflower. I loved Oscar Robertson and hated Rick Barry. I loved Tiny Archibald and hated John Havlicek. I loved Walt "Clyde the Glide" Frazier and hated Gail Goodrich (though I did like his name). When I reflect a little on these players though the bottom drops out of the simplicity and the obscure depths of swirling forces driving these preferences begin to surface. There is, first of all, race. In the list above, the three players I loved were African-American, the three I hated caucasian. And as I think about other affinities and aversion of the day, I realize that was often the case. I'm not entirely sure how this works -- growing up in a suburban neighborhood, in a university town in the midwest I don't remember meeting many black kids or adults, at least not until my new best friend Robb moved into the neighborhood sometime around 1975. And I'm not aware of any conscious feelings or attitudes about race from my early childhood. I don't remember even being aware of race period.

So when I think about who I loved and who I hated I think this: I loved smooth, fluid, fast but unhurried, creative but cool and apparently effortless effectiveness and I hated rough, scurrying, emotional, clumsy, scrapping effectiveness. It was not about effort (Oscar tried just as hard as Rick Barry), not about talent (all the hated players I named are now Hall of Famers), not about effectiveness -- I didn't even notice, let alone love or hate, the ineffective players. No, it was about style, about aesthetics, and something that, apparently, I invested in that style, upon which I then mapped race. I wonder, looking back now, if I didn't associate my hated style and the players who I reduced to incarnations of it with being emotional and out of control and if I didn't hate it because it felt like such a dominant feature of my household growing up, especially of my father. I think that's probably true, but I also think that as the youngest by far, I always felt like I was trying, trying to keep up, trying not to be a crybaby, and that I hated myself for the effort I had to make and I realize that I also hated the sweaty, panting evidence of effort apparent on my hated players. So in hating Rick Barry's matted sweaty hair, his foolish-looking (if incredibly effective) underhanded free throw shooting style, his shoving and holding on defense, his crying to the refs, it seems to me now, I was hating my dad, and my family as a whole, and I was hating myself. And in loving Oscar, and Tiny, and Clyde I was loving a desired possibility, a different way to be.

 It's striking to me now that if that desired possibility ever seemed elusive (and it did and would prove to be so) it wasn't on account of race, or style, or talent. I think I was ten years old before I realized, really realized, that the players I loved were almost all black and I wasn't. Before that time, I remember, I once got permission from my mother to transform an old white undershirt of mine into a Knicks jersey by painting "Knicks" on the front, and the number 10 below the name "Frazier" on the back.
Me, Age 6
Then, for good measure, I took the same black tempra paints and gave myself a goatee that I thought looked like Clyde's. I love that memory because it speaks to me of a time in the past (and perhaps whispers of a possible dimension of myself in the present) when my sense of possibility was so large that I could seamlessly identify with a 28 year old, 6'-4" black man, known almost as much for his fancy hats and suits and his Rolls Royce off the court as for his defensive wizardry and smooth playmaking on the court.

This reminds me that the other common factor of the players I loved, my very favorites, is that they were all playmakers, floor generals, point guards. They were also often, not always, the smallest players on the floor which must have appealed to me as well, not because I already knew that I'd never be tall, but because I was the smallest in my family. But despite their size, with their intelligence, their quickness, their unerring judgment, and their ball-handling skills, they controlled the complex flowing pattern of player and ball movement on the floor. Or at least that's how it looked to me. It would probably be more accurate, I think now, to say that they harmonized themselves with and influenced that pattern, but to me at that time they were in control and what could be better than a world run by the smallest.

But their control of the family -- er, I mean, the game -- achieved despite their smallness was also a positive function of their unselfishness. They controlled not by dominating others, not by bossing or asserting their will or rights, but rather by giving to others. In the economy of
God's Point Guard
my family, as I saw it at the time, things looked pretty simple: my dad was assertive and bossed and yelled and demanded a lot, my mom was quiet and kind and compassionate and generous and understanding. Besides the obvious reasons why a young boy might find the latter a more desirable model than the former, there was also the fact that with my siblings growing up and out of the house, and my father gone much of the time, my mom and I spent a lot of time alone together and had a very close relationship. My mom was the point guard, and in many ways, I learned how to love, how to love the point guard, and how to be one from her. In any event, the effectiveness through unselfishness -- elevated to the level of moral virtue by my Catholic mother's incarnation of the value -- sealed the deal for me as to who I loved and who I hated on the basketball floor.

And the fact of the matter is that in those particular years the very best point guards were black. That would be complicated, in the 1974-75 season, by Buffalo's sensational Rookie of the Year, Ernie Di Gregorio out of Providence, who was white. But in my mind, Ernie played black and was noteworthy most of all because, as a white player playing black he served as another material link in the chain of being connecting my miserable actual existence to my desired alternative existence as Walt Frazier. In other words, what I loved was black not because it was black but because I loved it. And to this day, while I can think of other white players I loved, I cannot think of a single black player I hated.

In a separate category, were the big guys like Lanier, McAdoo, Wes Unseld, Walt Bellamy, and Thurmond, for all of whom I felt a vertigo-like combination of attraction and terror. They were like dinosaurs to me, absurdly large, another species with a whole different way of moving than anyone else on the court, than the smaller guys, and therefore than me. And like dinosaurs, I was fascinated with them, but also a little bit scared by them. I don’t think my mind really knew yet how to assimilate their difference. But it was more than just their size. Their value to teams as shot blockers, rebounders, and inside scorers was undeniable, even to me, but I couldn't really understand or connect to their style and their values. What did it mean? What could it mean? What would it be like to be unable to handle the ball and to be okay with just receiving passes? Wouldn't there be a lot of pressure on you, just someone else doing all the work and you get the pass? -- you better put it in the hole every time or else everyone would surely hate you. I'd rather be the one passing. Then, when the big doofus misses the bunny, I can seethe inside and sublimate my anger by telling him not to worry about it, that I understand he's trying his best. Just like my mother, the point guard.  Much of my adult life can be explained by this.

But despite my identification with point guards, I don’t think I invested more emotion in any one player than in Wilt, the biggest (and baddest) of the big guys; and I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to see a sporting event than I was to see Wilt play in person in Madison. It happened on March 1, 1972,
I knew about Wilt’s 100 point game, of course, I know about his 50 point per game, 26 rebound per game season in 1961-62, knew about all his individual records, knew also about his rivalry with Bill Russell of the Celtics, about how Wilt struggled to gain recognition as a winner and so belie the perception that he was a selfish individualist who never learned to accommodate his massive talent with a successful team framework.

Wilt was unreal to me as a person, like a President or a superstar celebrity. Even seeing him in person, from just a few yards away, my mind struggled to assimilate his reality. Whereas with even the greatest of the other players I saw live during those years I was able to enjoy the way their mythical greatness was incarnated before my eyes, rendering them human and accessible, with Wilt my young intellectual and mental gears creaked and stalled. He was, undeniably, there, a living individual, walking and talking before my eyes. But somehow I couldn’t quite accept it. He was larger than life, more than real.

Also, my dad hated Wilt. I'd always thought it was because Wilt endorsed Nixon in the 1972 presidential campaign, but when I recently asked my dad about it he didn't remember that at all. He remembers preferring Russell to Chamberlain in the context of their rivalry because of the usual thing: Russell was able more intelligently to integrate his own astonishing abilities with those of his teammates. In my dad's words, "Chamberlain was blessed (or cursed) with a powerful physical presence which he used to neglect team play." Now, this is a much more muted and reasonable expression of this aversion than what I recall, which makes sense since my dad has mellowed considerably and I am no longer a small six year old. But at the time, my dad's preferences and desires seemed enormous to me: they were the most important desires in a household in which everyone's desires seemed more important than mine. On Christmas Eve, when we opened our presents, we opened them in descending order of age. So if he hated Wilt Chamberlain, it was as though, when I looked at Wilt on the television screen, he slowly morphed into a scowling, bullying, roaring demon.

Except it wasn't quite that simple. It still isn't quite that simple. Because already at that age I was finding secret ways to rebel and one of them, in this case, was by secretly loving the player my dad obviously hated. Sure. Except it wasn't quite that simple either. Because, in many ways, though he disliked him, my dad was the Chamberlain of our family:
My Dad, Age 44
our offense revolved entirely around him, he was unapologetically self-assertive to say the least, he was a dominating presence, and he wasn't a great team player.  So maybe in disliking Chamberlain on the grounds that he wasn't a team player, my dad was unconsciously expressing a dislike for himself and a wish to be more like Russell. Or maybe my dad didn't and wouldn't today recognize the Wilt-like aspects of his personality when I was growing up. What I think is for sure, though I wasn't aware of it at the time, is that I identified Wilt and my father and in my secret love of Wilt I found a way to express not only a secret love and admiration for my father but also a secret desire to be the opposite of a point guard, to be the guy who could take 60 shots a game and not feel bad because he knew that he could make 36 of them, knew that he could score 100 points. What would that be like?  It must feel awesome to be Wilt! The center of everyone's attention, all the energy of the game directed toward you, and it doesn't make you feel bad, like you've done something wrong or are hurting someone else, it just feels natural and right.  To this day, I understand success in life, at a very deep level, as something like "know when to take your shot, and know when to give it up." But back then (and still today) I veered madly between my outward worship of the abstract, unselfish point guard ideal and my shameful, secret fascination with the scoring machine, the player who, as they say, has no conscience.

I think this is part of why I responded so strongly to Pomerantz' book, which I picked up by chance in a used bookstore this summer as I was looking for some light reading. That book, as I’ve written here, has led me not only to reading more basketball books, not only to reexamining the rich role that basketball has played in my life, but even to serious consideration that the second half of my working life might be most enjoyably devoted to basketball. The book is good, excellent in some ways, but I think it’s most meaningful to me because it shares and articulates a fascination with the most fascinating game in the career of the one NBA player who most fascinated me in the formative years of my early childhood.

Basketball histories are often structured around an argument that some game, some season, some player, even some play was a turning point, a clear dividing separating one era from another; a moment or a player after whose appearance nothing would ever be the same. This may be an effective storytelling device, but it’s bad history because changes in the course of human affairs in any arena are always too complex to be reduced to a single pivotal moment. That said, such histories can still be effective in drawing attention both to the factors involved in complex changes and to the ways in which individuals and events can come to serve as symbols.

Such is the case with Wilt, 1962, which argues that Wilt’s 100 point game and, more generally, Wilt’s appearance in the league in the Fall of 1959 separated, in effect, one NBA from another. The pre-Wilt, pre-100 point league was mostly white, and mostly dominated by white men, involved a game played mostly at slow speeds, below the rim, and prizing team coherence over individual talent, and presented stars with whom the typical fan (also a white man) could identify, stars who by size, background, lifestyle and even salary weren’t that different from that average fan. The NBA ushered in by Wilt and emphatically announced by his 100 point game, by contrast, would be mostly black, still run, perhaps, by white men, but by white men who increasingly had at least to keep happy or to pretend to keep happy the black stars. It was played at higher speeds, more often above the rim, and made greater room for individual talent and creativity. Moreover, the individual players were less and less like the average fans. If those fans were increasingly black and shared backgrounds (urban, often poor) with the game’s players, the rise in salaries and the emergence of a celebrity lifestyle among at least the game’s players would make them less and less easy to identify with – all more true for the average white fan. And all of these changes, Pomerantz rightly points out, which involve complex configurations of race and class, occurred as the nation was entering a turbulent period of often violent change in relation to race.

Now, it is also true that NBA teams first began to integrate their rosters in 1950, when the first three African-Americans in the league – Earl Lloyd, Sweetwater Clifton, and Chuck Cooper – suited up, almost a decade before Wilt made his debut. Moreover, Bill Russell of the Celtics was the game’s first black superstar, joining the team in late 1956, leading it in rebounding in his rookie season, and playing the key role in a string of Celtics championships during the era. The game itself, for that matter, had already begun to speed up in 1954 with the introduction of the 24 second shot clock (an offensive team had to shoot the ball within 24 seconds of gaining possession or the ball would be turned over to the opponent). And players like Elgin Baylor, Rookie of the Year in the 1958-9 season, was already known as a tremendously creative individual player, who some players and observers consider the first in a line of such players that would include, decades later, the great Michael Jordan. Gone already before Wilt entered the league were the days when players were paid $5 to $15 per game. By the time Wilt entered the league, Bob Cousy was the highest paid NBA player, making $25,000 per year for the Celtics and the average NBA salary was $12,000, nothing of course compared with today’s salaries (Kobe will make 24 million next season), or even those of a decade later, but still nearly 3 times the average American annual salary at the time.

But these facts notwithstanding, a persuasive if necessarily debatable case can be made that Wilt and his 100 point game intensified and, especially, brought attention to, incremental changes that had been building in the preceding decade. Certainly, whatever the broader implications of the 100 point game, it was unprecedented and came to symbolize the appearance of a force that the game would have to contend with: the unstoppable offensive force. Indeed, Wilt had been unstoppable all season, averaging over 50 points and 25 rebounds per game, while playing in all but 8 minutes of the Warriors’ season. No team and no individual defender could contend with Chamberlain’s combination of height, strength, speed, leaping ability, and skills close to the basket, not even Russell and the Celtics. They certainly beat Chamberlain’s teams, but not because they stopped him; rather because they had superior talent at all the other positions on the floor (Russell joined a team that had already had five future Hall of Famers) and were able to integrate that talent.

If Wilt was larger than life on the court, he was also larger than life off the court. The $75,000 dollars he earned in his first year in the league already set him apart from the average player, let alone the average fan. But it went beyond money. Chamberlain lived in Harlem, where he was part-owner of a nightclub, rather than in Philadelphia. He would drive to home games from New York, often the afternoon of a game, after a night rubbing shoulders with James Baldwin, Redd Foxx, and other legends of the Harlem of the era.
Wilt's Club
Though he was reportedly a hard-working and likeable teammate, his contemporaries knew that he was not, as it were, in the same league as they were, in any sense, and found it difficult to get to know him. He appeared on American Bandstand and What’s My Line? and once challenged Ali to a boxing match, certain that with his size and reach Ali would never touch him.  And though he clearly loved the game, it was also clear that he could take it or leave it, was sure that he could excel in any number of arenas outside of basketball.

This combination of factors made Wilt a perfect scapegoat for the average (white) fan who probably felt that he was fast losing control of the game and, as with the game, of his comfortable post-World War Two world. So Wilt came to be known as a sullen, selfish, loser. This is a debate that strictly speaking can never be resolved. But as much as it is undeniable that Wilt was a self-assertive scorer who was gratified by his scoring and rebounding dominance, it is by no means clear that he asserted himself as a scorer only to gratify his ego (which is what would make him, in my book, selfish). Pomerantz has some good, balanced pages on this, especially in the context of the Chamberlain-Russell rivalry. I think that when Wilt was breaking records as a scorer it was because his desire to dominate dovetailed with a probably justifiable belief that his teams would win more games (even if maybe even he knew they weren't good enough to win championships no matter what) that way than with him sharing the ball more. After all, when Wilt was himself surrounded by several Hall of Famers (with the Warriors in the late 60s and then with the Lakers), he maintained his rebounding dominance (which was essential to those teams' success) but shifted his efforts from scoring to assists, in which he once led the league and three other times finished in the top ten. In other words, I think Wilt did what he and his coaches genuinely and probably rightly believed he needed to do for his teams to win as possible. His misfortune, I think, was that what he happened to have to do was take a lot of shots and score a lot of points and his great sin, in the eyes of his critics, was, I think, that he appeared to enjoy it.

But in a certain way, I think it was his full on enjoyment of his life off the court that may have been most unforgivable to the average (white) fan. Put it this way: "not only had Wilt humiliated the older (whiter) version of the game by beating teams who incarnated its values through an exhibition of sheer individual athletic ability and scoring talent, but he also seemed to be just as happy to play beach volleyball, to challenge Muhammed Ali (the Muslim draft-dodger) to a boxing match, or to be out all night carousing (in the ghettoes of New York no less). We white fans like our black basketball players to be humble and grateful for the opportunity we have given them to escape the hardships of the inner city."  In this way, I think, Wilt served as a convenient symbol of all that terrifed, confused, and enraged ordinary white American men in the 1960s.

Pomerantz is on to something in his claim that the 100 point game condenses all these factors (the broader changes in the game and the country and the emergence of Wilt as the fearsome offensive dominator) into a single event. And he is also on to something in tuning into the sharp contrast between the magnitude of the event and the relatively ordinary circumstances within which it occurred, as well as the very ordinary individuals who witnessed it. Pomerantz may be somewhat prosaic in describing the action of the game itself, but he is most skillful and sensitive in pulling us away from the action in order to give us the backstory – gleaned from hundreds of interviews – of the marginal players, the coaches, the courtside public address announcer, the referees, owners, and even the teenage fans who were at the game.

This collision of the ordinary and the extraordinary and of their mixing is what I find most moving in the book. Thus, we meet 14 year old Kerry Ryman who, by his own account, snatched the game ball from Wilt as the game was interrupted and fans mobbed the court when he scored his 100th point with 46 seconds to go. Ryman kept the ball and played with it for decades as he went about his ordinary life in Hershey (I could relate to this, my dad once brought me an ABA basketball signed by the San Antonio Spurs -- their coach, weirdly, was our neighbor Mr. Nissalke -- and I played with it in the driveway so that the autographs of George Karl, Swen Nater, and Larry Kenon are all but vanished). Eventually, a co-worker suggested he try to auction it. In the weeks and months that follow, Ryman appears on the morning television talk shows and seems poised to make hundreds of thousands of dollars off the sale of the ball. But then another, only slightly less ordinary individual steps in. Joe Ruklick, Chamberlain’s back up, who played all of 300 minutes in that season, claimed that he had actually secured the game ball at Chamberlain’s request, stuffing it into a gym bag at the end of the game. Ruklick, whose only claim to fame was having assisted on the 100th point (a claim he ensured was recorded by rushing over to the statistician to be sure he had awarded Ruklick the assist), was by this time a reporter for a small Chicago newspaper. The controversy that ensued lowered the value of Ryman’s game ball so that he ultimately wound up with around $25,000, with which he bought his daughter a used car (keeping hers), and invested the rest in a stock that skyrocketed and then bottomed out, so that after all, he was left with about what he had started with. Wilt, by the way, never claimed to have the game ball and didn't care to have it.

Except that Kerry Ryman had a story, and he had the memory of being at the game, and of having shaken Wilt’s hand. I didn’t get to shake’s Wilt hand when I saw him play in Madison on March 1, 1972, the eve of the ten year anniversary of the game. But I think my memory is no less powerful and no less sweet. Back then, the NBA had 17 teams divided into two conferences, Eastern and Western, and four divisions, Atlantic and Central in the East and Midwest and Pacific in the West. My defending champion Milwaukee Bucks were 55-15 and sitting comfortably in first place in the Midwest Divison, the Lakers were an awesome 57-11, far ahead in the Pacific. Earlier in the year, the Lakers had set a still unbroken record for consecutive victories, winning 33 in a row in November and December. That streak had finally been snapped by the Bucks in January in a game I’d seen on TV. The Lakers had, for their part, already beaten the Bucks twice, once during the win streak, and once after it had ended. There would be one more regular season meeting between these two teams who seemed to be headed for a Western conference playoff collision that was the real championship because none of contenders in the Eastern Conference in that season were really up to the level of either the Bucks or the Lakers.

Though both teams were assured a playoff spot by this point the game had the atmosphere of playoff intensity, both because the best record in the league and so the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs was still at stake, because there is that atmosphere whenever the two best teams in any league compete, and, no doubt, because the major players on each team were among the greatest competitors in the game’s history. Still, there were only 9,227 fans in the 22,000 seat coliseum that night.  That sparse attendance was still not uncommon for an NBA game, especially for a small market team like Milwaukee, and especially for a game played in Madison.

One of the dimensions of my basketball memories from those days is of how much in a minority I was among my friends in Madison as a basketball fan. They were baseball and football fans and basketball hadn’t gripped the imaginations of my suburban, almost all white friends.  I often wished that I could love baseball and football as much as they did, wished that my father, a Spanish immigrant, did and that he was adept at those sports like their fathers always seemed to be.  I wished, in that way, to be more clearly an American boy.  But it wasn't that way:  I played soccer and basketball and while my dad was always unequivocally and enthusiastically supportive of my playing and while I enjoyed watching games with him, he was never very good at basketball, which was new to him.  So for a few years at least, I feel that I was the only kid in Madison who loved and played basketball and I was certainly the only one of my friends to see the Bucks and the Lakers that night.

That Lakers team was named one of the top ten teams of the NBA’s first fifty years. The Bucks team of the previous season, for that matter, substiantally the same team I would be watching that night, could easily have been included in that list. Among the ten players who started that game for their respective teams were five who would be inducted into the Hall of Fame as players (Chamberlain, Jabbar, Robertson, Gail Goodrich, and Jerry West, whose silhouetted image is now the logo for the NBA). Four of them would be named to the list of the 50 greatest players in the NBA’s first half century. The remaining starters were talented role players on these two teams, but would have been stars on other teams. And one player, a Laker reserve who actually had a big game that night, would become a Hall of Fame coach: Pat Riley.  Following this interesting statistical indicator there would be no possibility of watching a single game in today's NBA that would feature so many players with so high a probability of making it into the Hall of Fame -- not last season's Lakers - Celtics finals, not even the All-Star game.

I don't remember very much about the game, almost nothing in fact except Kareem posting up Wilt near the hoop, the swirling movements of West, Goodrich and Robertson on the perimeter, and that the Bucks lost a close one. So I looked up an old newspaper account and found that the Bucks had taken a four point lead into the fourth quarter, extended it to five with just over a minute to play, and then blown the game in the final minute, losing by a point on a Gail Goodrich jumpshot with four seconds to go.  Chamberlain had missed three free throws with the Lakers down by one, the last rebounded by Lakers' forward Happy Hairston, who passed it out to Goodrich for the game winner.  I doubt that in the excitement of what I'd seen I cared very much about the loss. About a month or so later, the Bucks would lose in the Western Conference finals to the Lakers, who would in turn go on to defeat the Knicks for the championship, Wilt’s second as a player. Before too long, Oscar would retire, Kareem would be traded to LA, and I struggled to maintain my love for the Bucks even though they stopped playing in Madison and their roster was now populated with mere mortals rather than the mythical heroes of my early years. But that night I would go back home dumbly trying to assimilate the dimensions of what I had witnessed: Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest players ever. And then, the next day, as on so many days after that, I would ask my father to move the car out of the driveway, put on several layers of clothes, grab a rubber Wilson basketball out of the garage, my fingers already growing cold (they would soon be numb), and try, through practice and imagination, to grow my very ordinary self to the size of what I had witnessed, to the extraordinary dimensions of the Big Dipper.


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