The Truth Behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100-Point Game

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 1, 2014

Paul Vathis/AP Images


Without looking it up, tell me who the Philadelphia Warriors were playing against 52 years ago when Wilt Chamberlain dropped an NBA-record 100 points. 

If that's not enough of a challenge, go ahead and name at least two players on the opposing roster, and try to make one of them the man who started the game matched up against the Big Dipper. 

It's tough, isn't it? 

We've been trained to hear Wilt's name and immediately think about the triple-digit figure he posted in the scoring column on March 2, 1962, but we overlook the details—details that take away from the achievement, controversial as that may be. 

The answers to the challenges, by the way, are as follows. 

Wilt was playing against the New York Knicks, a team that entered the game with a 27-45 record and would go on to occupy the second-worst spot in the standings. Willie Naulls and Richie Guerin were the biggest names of that putrid bunch, but the man guarding Wilt was Darrall Imhoff. 

If you completed both of those challenges in successful fashion, kudos to you. You're part of the overwhelming minority. But chances are, you've only heard bits and pieces of the 100-point story, and they're usually the ones that make Wilt's outing look as special as possible. 

Don't get me wrong, though. 

Chamberlain's outing remains one of the most incredible performances in NBA history. It should say something that Kobe Bryant's 81-point outburst is the closest anyone other than Wilt has gotten to the vaunted 100-point barrier. 

However, that doesn't prevent it from being overhyped. Until the context is as widely known as the scoring total, Chamberlain's accomplishment will remain a mythologized achievement, one that gives the Hall of Fame center just a bit too much credit. 

The Situation

Darrall Imhoff years later with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Darrall Imhoff years later with the Los Angeles Lakers.Wen Roberts/Getty Images

From the get-go, the Knicks were in trouble. 

The Warriors entered the contest with a 46-29 record, while New York was well back, sitting in dead last at 27-45. On top of that, the underdogs didn't even have all of their top personnel at their disposal, a fact that often goes unreported when marveling at Wilt's gaudy scoring figure. 

According to Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times, it wasn't just Phil Jordon, the Knicks starting center, who was missing by the end of the game: 

The playoff-bound Warriors were facing the lowly Knicks, who would finish with the league's second-worst record and were missing Phil Jordon, their starting center-forward. The official story was that he was suffering from the flu, though his teammates knew better.

'The inside scoop was he was hung over,' said Darrall Imhoff, the 6-10 center who took Jordon's spot.

Imhoff started but played only 20 minutes because of foul trouble. That left Cleveland Buckner, a 6-9 rookie from Jackson State, and a host of other undersized defenders to contend with Chamberlain, the irrepressible giant who was then in his third NBA season.

How's that for a nice setup? 

Chamberlain easily could've been expected to explode on that fateful night, as the matchup was perfectly tailored for an evening of domination. But to score 100 points? That still wasn't viewed as something within the realm of realistic possibilities. 

Imhoff probably isn't a name that's familiar to newer generations of basketball fans. Quite frankly, it's one that might elude the older aficionados among us, as the big man is still most famous for allowing Wilt to post such a gaudy total. 

A 6'10", 220-pound center, Imhoff made the All-Star team in 1967, but that was the only occasion on which he was honored. During the 1961-62 season, which contained his infamous matchup against the Philly standout, he was playing less than 20 minutes per contest and averaging just 5.9 points and 6.2 rebounds each game. 

He was forced into action during this game by Jordon's troubles, but foul trouble limited him. In Gary M. Pomerantz's book, Wilt, 1962, Imhoff is quoted as saying the following to a referee after he drew a third whistle early in the proceedings: "Well, why don't you just give the guy a hundred now and we'll all go home!"

Little did he know...

It was Imhoff's second season in the NBA, and that still gave him more experience than Cleveland Buckner.

Less than one year removed from low-level college basketball at Jackson State, Buckner was forced into action against Chamberlain, who towered over him in both height and reputation. The 6'9", 210-pound center was a sixth-round pick in the 1961 NBA draft. 

Yes, that made him a rookie when he was forced to go up against Chamberlain. 

The Crazy Stats

Screen shot from the Basketball-Reference box-score archives.

Just look at that picture. 

Nothing complicated, just an antiquated box score bearing one of the most famous numbers in basketball history: 100. 

Fortunately, we've gained a little more statistical insight over the years than that one piece of paper offered us in 1962. According to Donald Hunt on ESPN, "The 'Big Dipper' shot 36-for-63 from the field and an incredible 28-for-32 from the free throw line."

Just think about those numbers for a second. In a way, they're even crazier than the triple-digit figure Chamberlain posted in the scoring column. 

Sixty-three shots from the field in a single game? Some players go a dozen outings without attempting that many shots.

Basketball-Reference shows that in the last three decades, only 22 games have been recorded in which a player lofted up at least 40 attempts from the field. No one has broken past 50, though Michael Jordan came close when he took 49 shots against the Orlando Magic in 1993. 

When Kobe Bryant dropped an 81-spot against the Toronto Raptors, he shot 28-of-46 from the field. That's 17 shots fewer than Chamberlain took on his legendary night. 


Because the rest of the Warriors did everything they could do to manufacture such a ridiculous outing. Chamberlain admitted as much during the autobiographical Wilt. According to the big man himself, "But my teammates wanted me to do it, too. They started feeding me the ball even when they were wide open." 

Two paragraphs later, he writes, "I really think I shot too often in that 100-point game—particularly in the fourth quarter, when everyone was egging me on toward 100."

PAUL VATHIS/Associated Press

Can you imagine the modern-day reaction if players actually started turning their nose up at wide-open shots? We live in a society that crucifies players for manufacturing triple-doubles by taking shots in meaningless situations.

Remember what Nicolas Batum said after launching a last-second three-pointer to record a trip-dub against the San Antonio Spurs? As a refresher, here's the quote, via Joe Freeman of The Oregonian:

That is maybe the worst thing I've done in my career. 

It went in— I was like, 'Oh, no.' I didn't mean to disrespect this team. This is the San Antonio Spurs, the best team from the last 15 years in the NBA. I've never disrespected this team. I love this team. I have a lot of friends on this team.

I know this is a bad thing to do. I want to apologize to the Spurs organization, because that didn't show good (respect) for the game, for myself, for the Blazers. I don't really want to disrespect this team.

That was for one ill-advised three-pointer. 

And if you think Wilt having teammates passing up open looks to feed him the ball was as bad as it got in 1962, think again. 

Farcical Nature of the Ending

Associated Press

"From accounts of how it went down, the Warriors spent almost the entire fourth quarter fouling to get the ball back and force-feeding Chamberlain the ball," writes CBS Sports' Royce Young. "New York coach Eddie Donovan said, 'The game was a farce. They would foul us and we would foul them.' Chamberlain's shot attempts by quarter: 14, 12, 16, 21. You think in a blowout in today's game that a team would keeping feeding their star like that?"

It's one thing for the opposing team to employ a Hack-a-Wilt strategy. 

After all, Chamberlain was one of the worst free-throw shooters the NBA has ever seen—he shot 51.1 percent from the line on 11.4 attempts per game for his careerand it's a serious aberration that he was able to knock down 28 of his 32 attempts from the charity stripe that night. More power to him for converting when the odds were against him.

"Hell, I'm the world's worst foul-shooter, and I hit 28 of 32 free throws that night—87.5 percent," Chamberlain wrote in Wilt. "That just shows that anyone can get lucky. Just check the box scores over a few months; some really weak players will have fantastic games."

It's different for a player's teammates to foul the other team during a blowout, all with the intent of running up an individual's scoring total. That's when things become farcical, as Donovan mentioned in Young's quote. 

The fouls just piled up as the game got increasingly ridiculous. Both teams were intentionally getting refs to blow whistles, and the Knicks were doing everything possible to run the clock out before Wilt got to triple digits. 

Frank McGuire, coaching one year before the 100-point game.
Frank McGuire, coaching one year before the 100-point game.Associated Press

Frank McGuire, the head coach of the Warriors, even put in his backups during the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, all with the intention of using them to foul New York and get the ball back into Wilt's hands. 

It's interesting that the relevant pages of Wilt make absolutely no reference to any of this. Chamberlain writes about the Knicks holding on to the ball "almost the full 24 seconds every time they got it late in the game." He mentions that Naulls told him Donovan gave his team "explicit orders to freeze the ball and pass up good shots so I (Chamberlain) couldn't rebound and score and embarrass them." 

But he never talks about his team employing similarly farcical tactics. 

Hmm...I wonder why. 

Still an Incredible Achievement

Anonymous/Associated Press

Even with a lackluster group of centers checking him, his teammates feeding him the ball at the expense of their own numbers and the game taking on a strange nature as the clock wound down toward triple zeros, Wilt still scored 100 points. 

One hundred points.

That's not an achievement to be taken lightly, regardless of the circumstances. No player in the history of the NBA has come any closer than 19 points from his record-setting total, and he's generally thought of as the holder of one of sport's unbreakable records. 

I don't want to take away from that.

What Wilt did was ridiculous, and it truly deserves to be remembered and revered for as long as basketball is around. However, context is important.

Say I told you that someone had a triple-double last night. You'd think it was impressive, right?

Well, now suppose I fill you in with more detail, revealing that the player in question had 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. But he also went 5-of-40 from the field and turned the ball over 12 times.

Is it still impressive?

That's an extreme case of the record we're currently dealing with. Chamberlain does have a few bits of context that detract from the overall legend of his 100-point outing, but it's still a ridiculously impressive performance. 

You can never take that away from him, and you shouldn't try. 

But the next time you're thinking about the center who once broke into triple digits in the scoring column, remember more than just the number of points he scored.