NBA great Chamberlain started building legacy against NU

Andrew Simon

This story is part three in a three-part series on the 1959 Northwestern basketball team. Part one: 50 years later, still standing tall. Part two: Ruklick hooks way to history book.

Northwestern sophomore center Joe Ruklick sat in the Allen Fieldhouse visiting locker room at halftime of his first varsity basketball game in 1956. His Wildcats were trailing the Kansas Jayhawks, thanks in large part to the opposing center, who already had poured in 25 points.

At 20 years old, in his first varsity contest, Wilt Chamberlain was decimating the Cats’ man-to-man defense. But NU coach Waldo Fisher told his squad during the break that his scheme would remain the same in the second half, as he believed the seven-footer with stilt-like legs would tire.

“Yeah, he got tired to the tune of 27 (points) in the second half,” recalled Ruklick, who fouled out with nearly 10 minutes left in the Cats’ 87-67 loss. “We thought from reading the scouting report that he was just another player who was seven feet, one inches tall. No, no. We wouldn’t think anything like that again.”

Neither would anyone else.

Chamberlain, who died in 1999, was an unmistakable character. His name brings to mind two figures: 100, the NBA-record total of points he once scored in a single game, and 20,000, the number of women he famously claimed to have slept with.

But the legacy of the “Big Dipper” extends far beyond a pair of round numbers.

His massive frame and stunning athleticism allowed him not only to shatter records on the court but also to alter the very nature of the plodding, vertically challenged NBA of the 1950s. Perhaps more importantly, it put him in a position to change attitudes about race.

“With all due respect to Michael Jordan,” said Gary Pomerantz, a Chamberlain biographer, “Wilt Chamberlain is the single most transformative figure in the history of the NBA.”

In 1957, less than five years before Chamberlain made history by setting his unbreakable scoring record, he brought his distinctive game to Evanston for a rematch against Ruklick and NU.

Not wanting to suffer through another 52-point, 31-rebound performance, new NU coach Bill Rohr had his squad double-team “Wilt the Stilt” and bring a third man over to help when Chamberlain got the ball. While NU held Chamberlain to 27 this time, the Jayhawks still won by six.

The tape from this game, which Ruklick still has, showcases Chamberlain’s athletic ability. The 7-foot-1 Chamberlain was a Big Eight Confererence high jump champion, evidenced by the way he used his grasshopper-like legs to effortlessly eat up court on the fast break. Once he got going, he was “like a train going down the tracks,” said his Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors teammate Al Attles.

Fellow Kansas player Ron Loneski said even though he saw Chamberlain every day at practice for three seasons, he was continually surprised by Chamberlain’s ability to maneuver in transition.

“The fact (that) he could run on the fast break up and down the floor was amazing,” Loneski said.

Although Chamberlain had some difficulty against Ruklick’s hook shot, he still showed flashes of his defensive potential. On one play, he left Ruklick near the foul line, took two steps and swatted a driving player’s layup attempt off the backboard. When Ruklick caught the carom and tried a short jumper, Chamberlain sprang out from under the hoop and slapped the shot away to a teammate.

“Wilt was a guy who had a remarkable skill set,” Pomerantz said. “I think if you judge athleticism purely on the basis of size, speed, strength and agility, then you would have to say the young Wilt Chamberlain at (7-1), 260 pounds, a decathlete and a basketball scorer of unprecedented quality, would have to be among the greatest athletes of the 20th century.”

Chamberlain painted his ultimate masterpiece on March 2, 1962 in Hershey, Pa., where his Philadelphia Warriors took on the New York Knickerbockers.

Chamberlain played the entire 1961-62 season like it was a video game in rookie mode, averaging 50.4 points per contest. To put that in perspective, Jordan scored 50 points in a game less than 40 times in his career.

In this particular game, Chamberlain took advantage of a weak, undermanned and undersized Knicks squad. He also shot uncharacteristically well from the free throw line, making 28 of 32 attempts, compared with a 61.3 percent season average. He scored 59 points in the second half to reach 100, which is 19 more than anyone else has recorded in NBA history.

But the real significance of Chamberlain’s feat extended beyond the NBA record book and into its conservative, backward-thinking front offices.

“The NBA at that time was a white man’s enclave,” said Pomerantz, whose book Wilt, 1962 focuses on the 100-point game. “There was unquestionably, among owners, an unwritten quota that limited the number of African-American players on each team to only a few. What Wilt Chamberlain did at that time, especially in Hershey, Pa., the night he scored 100 points, was to symbolically blow that quota to smithereens.”

With fans drawn to the more fast-paced, high-flying style that Chamberlain and other emerging black stars brought, attendance and television coverage boomed, said Ruklick, who played with Chamberlain for three seasons on the Philadelphia Warriors, and now lives in Evanston. NBA owners could no longer afford to hold down the number of black players in the league.

Discrimination was something Chamberlain had to deal with going back to his days at Kansas. As Loneski recalled, Chamberlain was bothered by the fact that 17,000 people would come to see him play but that restaurants in town, in Lawrence, Kan., wouldn’t serve him.

But Chamberlain was never satisfied with accepting other people’s interpretations of what could or could not be done, whether he was dealing with scoring records or racial barriers. His sister, Barbara Chamberlain-Lewis, one of his eight siblings, said when a restaurant near campus refused him service on his first night in town, he threatened to quit unless the coach worked it out. The problem was taken care of immediately.

“That’s how he handled things – he was outspoken,” Chamberlain-Lewis said. “So I think what he did at Kansas kind of influenced that whole town to open doors they wouldn’t have opened on their own. When Wilt came, he demanded certain rights and he got them.”

This stubborn streak was just one aspect of Chamberlain’s complex personality.

People often were afraid of Chamberlain because of his size, Attles said, adding that this reputation was entirely undeserved.

One of Attles’ most prominent memories of Chamberlain is from a game the Warriors played against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. After it was over, Chamberlain excused himself from his coach’s post-game speech, walked back into the emptying arena and searched for a kid to whom he had promised an autograph during pre-game warmups. He found the kid and signed every autograph he wanted.

“He was a lot more compassionate than he got credit for,” Attles said of his friend and teammate. “He was a lot better person than a lot of people knew.”

Although Chamberlain was a serial exaggerator, most famously about his love life, he could also be down-to-earth. His sister Barbara recalled how Chamberlain visited her soon after his 100-point game. Despite her pleas for details about the performance, he simply gave credit to his teammates for passing him the ball. Instead of talking about his accomplishment, he just wanted to go to the movies with her.

“To him, basketball was just part of his life,” Chamberlain-Lewis said of her
brother. “It wasn’t all sports. He loved all people, and that to me was his legacy.”

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Read more:50 years later, still standing tall 5/26/09A game-by-game look at the 1958-59 ‘cagers’ season 5/26/09Ruklick hooks way to history book 5/27/09Joe Ruklick: Quick Hits 5/27/09