Ruklick hooks way to history book

Matt Forman

This story is part two in a three-part series on the 1959 Northwestern basketball team. Part one: 50 years later, still standing tall. Part three: NBA great Chamberlain started building legacy against NU.

“One minute, and one second to play. He has 98 points in professional basketball. I’ll tell you, that’s a lot of points if you’re playing grammar school kids, isn’t it?”

It was late in the fourth quarter on March 2, 1962 in Hershey, Pa., and Wilt Chamberlain was approaching 100 points.

As coach Paul McGuire pulled his starters, he sent in an unlikely player: his 6-foot-9 backup center Joe Ruklick, who rarely saw the court because Chamberlain averaged 50 points and 48.5 minutes per game that season. The former Northwestern All-American was in his third and final year in the NBA with the Philadelphia Warriors. Ruklick said that, as he pulled off his warm-ups, he got a chill and thought to himself, “What the hell am I doing?”

At that moment, Ruklick had no idea he was about to be a part of one of the most famous plays in NBA history.

“167-146, now let’s see if they foul somebody quick. Rodgers throws long to Chamberlain, he’s got it, he’s trying to get up, he shoots, no good. The rebound Luckenbill, back to Chamberlain, he shoots, up, no good, in and out. The rebound to Luckenbill, back to Ruklick, in to Chamberlain. He made it, he made it, he made it! A dipper dunk, he made it!”

That was the call as heard on WCAU radio in Philadelphia.

Ruklick said McGuire put him in the game because the coach knew Ruklick would pass the ball to Chamberlain. The substitution went as planned, and while fans rushed the court after the game, Ruklick ran over to the scorer’s table to ensure his spot in the NBA record book.

“The fans are all over the floor, they stop the game. People are all over him. … The most amazing scoring performance of all time, 100 points for the Big Dipper!”

Although Ruklick has called himself a “walking footnote” as a result of the play, that name doesn’t begin to describe him. Now a 70-year-old Evanston resident, Ruklick starred as a high school and college hook shot artist who was impossible to stop. Later, Ruklick was an uncomplaining “caddie” to arguably the greatest player in NBA history and an advocate of racial integration who became the first white editor at The Chicago Daily Defender.

But Ruklick’s illustrious basketball career didn’t exactly start as expected. Standing 5-foot-11 at the age of 12, a coach saw him in the hallway during school and asked him to come out for the team. Later that year, he was cut from the freshman squad.

Still, this experience might have shaped the player Ruklick became. His high school coach Don Sheffer told him he would have to work hard and offered to teach him the hook shot – his defining skill.

“I came to practice early every morning, and it was like falling in love,” Ruklick said of spending hours under Sheffer’s direction.

Though he didn’t start early in his junior year, Ruklick became an established starter by the end of the season. Then, in his senior year, he led Princeton (Ill.) High School to the semifinals of the state championships, leading all scorers with 26 points per contest and earning All-Tournament team honors.

Ruklick was recruited by several teams, including Kansas State, Indana and DePaul. Kansas State had an athletes-only dorm. Indiana offered him money and any car he wanted from a local dealership. DePaul offered to send him through law school, along with a new car and clothes. Ruklick chose NU because he said it was “clean.”

A self-described contrarian, Ruklick majored in English and challenged himself with classes, including one on Contemporary Irish Literature, which the athletic department told him not to take. While he shined in the classroom, his defining accomplishments came on the basketball court – almost immediately.

In the first game of his varsity basketball career, Ruklick faced off with Chamberlain in a game against Kansas. He scored 22 points in his Wildcats debut, but Chamberlain outdid him with 52 points and 31 rebounds. Ron Loneski, Chamberlain’s teammate at Kansas, said Ruklick gave Chamberlain all he could handle in that game. The following year, both Ruklick and Chamberlain scored 27 points in a rematch.

“It was fantastic,” said Dick Berry, NU’s sixth man. “It was unbelievable. That battle, because neither one of them would give in. … It was just absolutely amazing that Joe had such an incredible game against Wilt, and when I used to see Wilt, he used to say, ‘Goddamn it, Northwestern was the toughest game I ever played.'”

Ruklick used a combination of left- and right-handed hook shots that accounted for about 90 percent of his attempts. Team manager Bob Rossiter said Ruklick set up between eight and 15 feet from the basket. In that Kansas game during his junior year, tape reveals him knocking down hooks from several spots on the floor.

For his unmatched ability, Ruklick was named the greatest center in high school basketball. But Ruklick knew Chamberlain really deserved the title, and told him that.

“It’s all about respect,” said Chamberlain’s sister, Barbara Chamberlain-Lewis, one of his eight siblings. “For a white guy to tell a black guy, ‘I just took an award that you should have gotten…’ That was something. That’s what started a friendship that stayed through Wilt’s lifetime.”

On that 100th point basket, Ruklick did more than pass Chamberlain the ball. He passed him an opportunity to make a name for himself in a sport where equal footing was difficult to come by. Ruklick said he believes some of the team’s players did not want to see Chamberlain reach the 100-point plateau.

“This was the Kennedy age, the Camelot age,” said Gary Pomerantz, the author of Wilt, 1962, a book about the 100-point game. “The civil rights age was in full flight, but it wasn’t moving as fast as certainly it could have been or should have been and so Joe’s racial antenna was certainly on alert, and he saw and felt a lot of things that some of his other white teammates did not see and feel. … Race in America matters to Joe.”

In his post-basketball career, Ruklick served as a writer for The Chicago Daily Defender, traditionally an all-black newspaper served by a 22-person editing staff. Ruklick said he often wrote editorials from the position of the board, rather than his own perspective, even if he disagreed with the argument.

From basketball player to journalist, Ruklick proved to be the consumate teammate.

“Joe was an outstanding player,” said Al Attles, who played with Ruklick for two seasons in Philadelphia and was the first coach of the Golden State Warriors. “It was his good fortune and bad fortune. He had an opportunity to play with Wilt, but he didn’t play very much because Wilt played all the time. But Joe never complained, he just went to work every day.”

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Read more:Joe Ruklick: Quick Hits 5/27/0950 years later, still standing tall 5/26/09A game-by-game look at the 1958-59 ‘cagers’ season 5/26/09NBA great Chamberlain star
ted building legacy against NU