‘Some Night in This League Chamberlain Will Score 90 Points,’ 1959

[What follows is a real brief check-in on the first weeks of Wilt Chamberlain’s NBA career. Our first look is with Jerry Nason, an award-winning Boston Globe columnist. Nason was such a fast writer that his colleagues said he could “whip out copy like a machine gun.” This rapid-fire column is titled, ‘Stilt,’ Russell in Hoop Fantasy. It ran on November 1, 1959.]

Saturday night, with the chips down at Boston Garden, Celtics’ rebound king Bill Russell meets Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain in the first of many NBA contests that probably will go down in basketball history. 

Their combined heights total 14 feet—or about the level attained by a really good college pole vaulter. Seven-foot-2 inches of it belonged to Chamberlain. “That,” remarks a Philadelphia reporter, “is because he’s standing up straight for the first time in his life, now that he’s surrounded by big guys in the pro game.”

The “Chamberlain Slouch” was due to the young fellow’s obvious embarrassment at being so tall that six-footers appeared dwarfed in his company. Appearing here a year ago with the Globetrotters, he was pressed about his true measured height. The Stilt resisted. “I’m about seven feet tall,” he parried. 

So much emphasis has been made on Chamberlain’s extraordinary height for the past four years that his remarkable playing ability has been minimized. He has amazing speed, for instance‚ and none of the immobile giants of basketball’s “goon” era could possibly hope to contain him. 

Unlike Russell, whose chief asset as a rookie three years ago was his genius on defense, the Stilt is a scorer. One envious NBA owner has already predicted, “Within two seasons, Chamberlain will break Joe Fulks’ old one-game scoring record of 63 points.”

Fuzzy Levane, coach of the NY Knicks, is less conservative. “Some night in this league,” he stated, “Chamberlain will score 90 points.”

“But,” adds Celtics’ Red Auerbach, “the best bet in the world is that he will never do it against Bill Russell!” 

Auerbach has known The Stilt longer and better than anybody in the National Basketball Assn., having instructed a gangling Philadelphia schoolboy in the Catskills six summers past. “He is great,” admits Red, “and his potential is enormous—but so is Russell great. He has tremendous pride. 

“I’ll say this: some of the most memorable man-to-man engagements you sportswriters have ever seen will occur anytime when Bill Russell plays Wilt Chamberlain.”

They’ve met once—in an exhibition in Minneapolis. It wasn’t an all-out effort for Russell, who was pestered by a head cold and was confined to the bench for half the game. 

Chamberlain made his official NBA debut a week ago with a 43-point, 28-rebound performance . . . an incredible rookie effort. The victims thereof, New York Knicks, sat around afterward in what could not be exactly described as a state of shock. It was more like a trance induced by a majestic piece of orchestration upon a throng of music lovers. 

“I’ve been in this league for a dozen years,” said Carl Braun, “and in all that time there has never been a player like Chamberlain—not even George Mikan.”

Mikan was merely named the No. 1 player of the First Half Century.

[Not a lot was written in the newspapers about the first regular-season matchup between Wilt and Russell. Here’s a brief clip from the Philadelphia Inquirer that marked the occasion on November 8, 1959. The Inquirer, then reluctant to cover the Philadelphia Warriors in-depth, didn’t send anyone from the sports desk to cover the game. These paragraphs, part of a longer story, were filed by a nameless Boston stringer.]

The historic first meeting between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain was a standoff, but the game resulted in a 115-106 victory for the Boston Celtics over the Philadelphia Warriors before a screaming, capacity crowd of 13,909 at the Boston Garden Saturday night. Both Russell and Chamberlain played the full 48 minutes in their first pro basketball meeting. Russell scored 22 points and Wilt had 30, his lowest production of the season, but the Celtic outrebounded the 7-foot-1 Warrior, 35-28 . . . 

The game was played at an exciting tempo, but was extremely ragged at times. This was due in large degree to the presence of Chamberlain and Russell, who were disrupting the offensive patterns at both ends. Time after time, one team then the other was surrendering the ball without a serious challenge from the opposition. It was almost like the athletes were paying too much attention to either Chamberlain or Russell . . .

[Wilt did an interview after the game, offering his thoughts on the NBA just five games into his pro career. Here are the two main points.]

1 – The pro game is rougher than he thought, and the other teams were working him over pretty good. “I’d say that describes what is going on,” said Chamberlain. “However, I’m not complaining. It’s part of the game. I can take care of myself. Some people don’t think I’m rough enough. Well, I don’t intend to be goaded into a wrestling match. I’m playing basketball.

2 – Bill Russell is a worthy adversary. “He is the toughest I’ve played or expect to play. He is the best defensive man in the league or the world, as far as I’m concerned.” 

[Up last is a telling syndicated column, titled “Wilt Big Problem for NBA Coaches.” It was published on November 18, 1959 and comes from the highly regarded, well-connected Milton Gross. The column appeared in various newspapers around the country, including the Boston Globe.]

The rookie scores over Minneapolis’ Larry Foust.

The Minneapolis Lakers devised a way to stop Wilt Chamberlain, the Philadelphia Warriors’ man from outer space. They played ball control, as much as it is possible in the NBA, by not shooting until the last few seconds allowed the offensive team under the pro basketball league’s 24-second rule. This way Chamberlain was held to 26 points Sunday night after being contained for his season’s low of 28 the night before . 

If this indicates anything, it is that Wilt has become the NBA’s biggest problem, it’s foremost topic of conversation and “the greatest single force ever to come into pro basketball,” according to Ed Macauley, coach of the Western Division champion St. Louis Hawks. 

“We,” said Macauley, whose team played nine times against Chamberlain during the Hawks-Warriors preseason exhibition tour, but doesn’t come against him in league competition until next Tuesday, “plan to play him straight for the first two games to see how it goes. If we’re not successful, we will do anything. We may start pressing him in the dressing room or try deflating the ball.”

Perhaps taking the air out of the round ball or destroying the pattern of your team’s play may be the answer to neutralizing Chamberlain, but the opposition must do something. In 10 games, 7-feet-1 ¼ Wilt has wilted the defense against him for a 37.1-point average. He has 312 rebounds. Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics has 253 in 11 games and in his time in the league nobody has been able to rebound with Russell—until Chamberlain. 

Coach’s Estimate

The Russell-Chamberlain person-to-person meeting Nov. 7th in Boston was supposed to be a stand-off. Chamberlain, himself, has said he thought Bill had the edge, but Macauley still says:

“You’ve got to consider Chamberlain’s start on a par with the effect George Mikan had on the league when George was at the top of his game. Only I consider Chamberlain as a rookie a better all-around ball player than Big George was at his best.”

This is a considerable testimonial from a coach who has the pleasure of watching stars such as Bob Pettit pouring in points for the Hawks each game. “Occasionally,” said Macauley, “the jump shots of the other good players, like Pettit, will be blocked, but it’s impossible to defense him if he’s having a normal night. Man to man it just can’t be done. He’s changed the idea of the whole game. He’s changed the way you must operate your own defense and the way you go on defense against him. My own feeling is that, at a minimum, he’ll average 32 to 34 points a game. At the maximum, who can tell? Perhaps 40, maybe more.”

Although the NBA season has barely begun, Chamberlain already has a 55-point game against Cincinnati, a pair of 41’s and a couple of 39’s. “The only thing which may hurt him,” Macauley said, “is that he’s playing so much—45 , 46, 48 minutes a game. Chamberlain’s extremely strong, but nobody is that strong that they can play our kind of schedule and keep up that kind of pace. 

“On the other hand,” said Macauley, reflecting the amount of thought he and other NBA coaches have already expended on the Chamberlain problem, “there are times now when he seems to poop out a bit and has to coast. Now, Russell can do that because he’s got a Couz’ (Bob Cousy), a Sharman and a Heinsohn and the others with him. Chamberlain can’t. But Chamberlain’s going to get stronger and, as he gets stronger and goes full speed, he’s going to be really something. He’s got a lot of confidence in himself, and he looks like he wants to get better. He wants to improve. He wants to learn.”

There are, of course, some things Chamberlain has room to learn. He must master how to keep himself from being boxed out under the backboards. He must refine his hook shot. He must learn to counteract the wisdom that guys such as Russell can bring to his game. He must accustom himself to take advantage of the help Tom Gola, Guy Rodgers, and Woody Sauldsberry can give him and rely more on Paul Arizin’s scoring touch. 

This suggested another line to questioning. did Macauley, whose Hawks inevitably wind up in the playoff final against the Celtics, think the Warriors could win the Eastern title because of Chamberlain?“I doubt it,” said the St. Louis coach. “Philadelphia doesn’t have the Celtics’ team balance. Boston has a whole bench full of guys who can come in and kill you, but Philadelphia falls off too sharply after the first five or six players. What happens if one of Philadelphia’s first five gets hurt? They’d be in bad shape in Philly.”

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