Wilt’s Incredible Foul Hang Up

[Wilt Chamberlain shot 51.1 percent from the free throw line during his 14 seasons in the NBA. For anyone who watched Wilt toe the foul line and stare down the utter humiliation of it all, the percentage seemed like it must have been even lower. Maybe 30 percent, though Wilt could sometimes defy the infamy and string together several makes.

In the brief article, Newsday’s fantastic Stan Isaacs captures the trauma of it all. His article, originally published in Newsday, was reprised in Popular Library’s 1969 Basketball Yearbook. It’s sports journalism at its very finest.]

It is an event, a ritual, almost a mystical interlude in the course of the frantic action of a professional basketball game. It is the drama of Wilt Chamberlain, one of the world’s most striking human beings, stepping to the line to attempt a foul shot. 

Chamberlain’s fame as a great basketball player is far-flung. He dominates the sport befitting his 7-foot-1 inch Eiffel Tower of a frame, his overwhelming strength, his foreboding demeanor. 

He can, he says do almost everything well. He makes bets about his arm wrestling prowess, his speed, his ability to name the 50 states—and their capitals. He even orders corned beef sandwiches on white bread, with mayonnaise, and eats them. But his foul shooting is something extraordinarily special. 

The 1968 All-Star at Madison Square Garden provided a star-studded setting for Chamberlain to stage his foul-shooting theatrics. With the East ahead, 35-25, late in the first quarter, Chamberlain was fouled for the first time and went to take his two free throws. 

The big man walked to the foul line slowly. He waited somberly as five other players took their places in the lanes. Then he coolly took the basketball tossed to him by referee Mendy Rudolph. He set himself carefully spreading his feet while adjusting the ball in his large hands. 

He wiggled his frame in the manner of a professional, setting his muscles and mind at ease for the task at hand. He bounced the ball once. He bounced it again. The two bounces were almost a reminder that this just wasn’t anybody at the foul line. This was Wilt Chamberlain, who someday should be celebrated in story and song for his moments at the foul line. 

He grasped the ball again after the second balance. He was ready. He spread his long fingers on both sides of the ball, bent his knees, dipped and spun the ball out of his hands in an underhanded counter-clockwise motion. 

The ball took off on a line drive, almost no arc to it. It shot over the rim, bouncing just behind it against the glass backboard and off to the side. A miss. 

A slight look of pain flashed on Chamberlain’s face. He wiped the sweat from his mustache and goatee with his right hand. Now, with a wounded look in his eyes, he readied to receive the ball from the referee again.

There he was, a giant of a man on a foul line only a few feet from the basket. All he had to do was to arc this rubber ball measuring 30 inches in circumference the relatively short distance of 14 feet, 10 inches, into a ring that was 18 inches in diameter. There is nobody in his way to block him, nobody to interfere with the simple task of putting the ball in a hole. 

This is a task that little boys master. There are young men in junior high school who are barely taller than five feet, who can walk up to that foul line and put the ball into the basket with nary a drop of perspiration. There are boys who can do it five times in a row; there are even some who can do it 10 times in a row, and they will never make $100,000 a year or be lionized by a whole city for playing basketball. 

Now Chamberlain was getting set on that line to try to make his second foul shot. There are times when Wilt Chamberlain must feel he has spent an eternity on that foul line. He is the man who once made 28 free throws in 32 attempts, the most foul shots ever made in a game, and that was the night he scored 100 points against the Knicks. 

Yet he is also the man who missed 22 foul shots in one game, more than any other man, and that happened earlier this year. And he is the man who has missed more foul shots than any other in history. His percentage last year was .380 when most players had percentages of better than .600 at the foul line. 

Again, he gripped the ball in his huge hands. This time he bounced it only once. He bent his knees, dipped his body, and pushed out his hands. It was a motion that had all the grace of a wounded pelican trying to get off the ground. 

On this shot there was almost a lovely arc to the throw. It went over the basket, then it hit the back on the rim and bounced away. Chamberlain looked at the results of his work for barely an instant and then turned away, like a man getting out of a steam bath. 

Once more, in the third quarter when the East led, 68-65, Chamberlain was awarded two foul shots. Again, he strode to the line. He waited for the ball like a boy standing outside the principal’s office awaiting his turn to be punished. He wiped his beard, he shot and missed. He put his head down and his hands on his hips. He looked for the ball again. 

He shot again. Up, up went the ball. It zeroed in on the basket. It cleared the front rim, then dipped. It hit the back rim. It deadened at the impact and fell through the hoop. Excelsior. Wilt Chamberlain had made a foul shot. 

The spectators applauded. The cheers were mocking and derisive. Be that as it may, years from now they might forget many things about basketball, even that the East won the game, 144-124. But they may only remember this Theater of the Absurd, big Wilt Chamberlain standing out on the foul line and grappling with his most terrible of all things, the foul shot. 

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