The Step Back: Where there’s a Wilt, there’s a way

On this day in 1962, Wilt Chamberlain did something no other NBA player has done before or since: he scored 100 points in a single game.

The gargantuan feat helped the Philadelphia Warriors record a 169-147 victory over the New York Knicks and secured Chamberlain the NBA single-game scoring record. It still stands today and will likely never be broken, given that just three players (Kobe Bryant, who scored 81 points in 2006, David Robinson, who scored 71 in 1994, and Devin Booker, who scored 70 in 2017) have succeeded in making the all-time top 10 in the past 30 years.

The fact that the record has remained unsurpassed for such a long time has led to recent scrutiny though and, as Adam Fromal pointed out via Bleacher Report in 2014, context is everything.

For instance, it’s important to note that the Knicks were a sub-par team that year and entered the game against the 46-29 Warriors with a 27-45 record. It’s also significant that Phil Jordan, the Knicks starting center, missed the game because he had the flu (or, as some reports have it, a hangover), leaving sophmore Darrall Imhoff and rookie Cleveland Buckner to try and contain Chamberlain. Obviously they didn’t, allowing Wilt to score 23 points in the first quarter and 41 by halftime. And as his points total grew, his teammates supposedly began turning down open looks in order to feed him the ball. According to one article on NBA.com, the Knicks even ‘tried fouling other Philadelphia players to keep the ball away from Chamberlain, but the Warriors countered by committing fouls of their own to get the ball back’. This allowed him to score a further 28 points in the third quarter and 31 in the fourth, the shot to round out the best scoring night of his career coming with just 46 seconds left on the clock.

Chamberlain finished the game 36-of-63 from the field (57.1 percent) and 28-of-32 shooting from the free throw line (87.5 percent). In the modern era (which began with the 1983-84 season, the first to feature the expanded playoff format) no other player has put up more than the 50 field goal attempts that Kobe Bryant did in his final game in 2016 (no, not even Russell Westbrook). Meanwhile, no one has made more free throws in a single game than Chamberlain did that night, although Adrian Dantley did tie the record while playing for the Utah Jazz in 1984.

While this tells us that the NBA has changed a lot since Wilt’s day, his 100-point game is still a remarkable feat. Especially when you consider that the Knicks put up 147 points of their own in that game, with Richie Guerin scoring a team-high 39 points and Buckner and Willie Naulls notching 33 and 31 respectively. Chamberlain was just a cut above though and averaged an incredible 50.4 points a game during the 1961-62 season. In total, he scored 4,029 points and averaged 25.7 rebounds in 48.5 minutes a game while also recording 78, 73, 67 and 65-point outings, long before the three-point shot was added.

During his 14-year career, Chamberlain played for the Philadelphia / San Francisco Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers. He was a two-time NBA champion, an NBA Finals MVP, a four-time NBA MVP and a 13-time All-Star. He retired in 1973 and was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1978. Wilt Chamberlain died in 1999, aged 63.