The night I faced Wilt Chamberlain

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in an NBA game. The feat was remarkable. Face it, 100 points is 100 points, even if the person who did it was a man amongst boys at the time.

But I’ve always wondered what had to be going through Eddie Donovan’s (the opposing coach) mind at the time. What if that was me coaching against Wilt Chamberlain that night? Hmmmm…..

(Whistle blows)….”FOUL!” The words from the referee that has been giving me bad calls all game. “Come on! You’ve got to be kidding me? That wasn’t a foul? How was that a foul?”, I try and make my case to the referee who seems motivated to just ignore me. He glances at me but never acknowledges me when I try to call him over for an explanation. I sit back down on the bench next to my assistant coaches rubbing my forehead trying to think of something, anything to stop what was happening. I turn to my assistant and ask, “What are we going to do coach? Any ideas?” He had no answers. Nobody did. It was the forth quarter in a game that was already seemingly out of reach. We were losing 155-133, but the bigger story was what was unfolding before our very eyes on the court. Some guy on the opposing team named Wilt Chamberlain had just scored his 86th point and was about to go to the line to complete the 3-point play to score his 87th.

I couldn’t believe this was happening. Was I really going to be the coach who let an opposing player score 100 points against us? I’ve tried everything. Double teams, triple teams, even quadruple teams during a few possessions. There was no stopping Wilt Chamberlain on this night. We just turned the ball over once again and Chamberlain beats every one of my guys down the court on the fast break and scores easily. He’s at 89 now with just 3 minutes left to play.

I call a timeout.

In the huddle I explain to my team that this Chamberlain guy is not going to score 100 points against us. The rather large crowd of a little over 4,000 had all stuck around waiting to see if Chamberlain would reach the century mark. With the game out of hand, it was all that was left to stick around for. The crowd started chanting “100 points!” The PA announcer was announcing Chamberlain’s points after every basket. Hearing all of this, I rip into my guys. “Do you hear that”, I scream to the players. “That’s all they want to see. And you guys are just letting this shit happen! Grow some balls and have some freaking pride will ya?!” I don’t normally curse to my players, but this has brought the worst out of me. I tell my team that we are going to go into a stall offense to try and run the time out. “Be patient with the basketball. No shots! Just hold the damn ball.” Clearly the strategy had went from trying to win a basketball game to trying to save face and get this game over with as quickly as possible.

After the timeout, we get set to inbound the ball. The opposing team’s guard steals the inbound pass, passes it all the way up the court to Chamberlain who goes in for the dunk. One of my players does manage to hustle to catch up to Chamberlain only to foul him during the dunk. Chamberlain makes good on the three-point play and now has 92.

“#$&@*#*!!” are my thoughts exactly as I slam my foot on the floor seeming as if I was purposely trying to put a hole right through it.

After a few more possessions and failed attempts at stopping Wilt Chamberlain, it became evident that it was only a matter of time before he reached the century mark. We tried stalling. We continued to try and guard him with multiple players at once. We tried fouling. Nothing was working. This was the most hopeless I’ve ever felt as a coach. With 98 points in the books and 0:59 seconds on the clock, a pass goes inside to Chamberlain and I just knew this was it. He goes up for the shot and…misses! I jump out of my chair in hopes that my guy gets the rebound so I can call a timeout. One final timeout to set up a stall play that would prevent this all from happening. One final timeout to tell all 5 of my guys that if he got the ball, I wanted every single player out there on him. I didn’t care if anyone else scored. I just didn’t want us to be the team to give up triple digits to a single player. As I stand there with my hands raised over my head ready to give the quick timeout signal to the ref, Chamberlain snatches away the rebound from our power forward. Still standing there with my hands ready to signal timeout, I see Chamberlain go up for a second shot after that rebound. The shot is a short one and it seemed impossible that he would miss this shot.

But he did!

The ball is tipped in the air, but it was tipped to Chamberlain’s teammate who quickly passes back to Chamberlain who remarkably is now wide open under the basket. How on God’s green earth does my team leave someone who has scored 98 points wide open under the basket? How could we be so careless with such little time left on the clock? Do we not have any pride at all on this team?

I had only wished that I were out there myself. I guarantee that I would guard Chamberlain and he would not even score 50 against me. I had too much pride (of course I was a lot better in my mind than I actually was, but that’s how all coaches think, isn’t it?). But I could not get my team to think like I used to think as a player. This has always been my challenge with this team.

Chamberlain would go up and easily score his 100th point of the game with 0:46 still left on the clock. The crowd rushed the court and that is how the game ended. Final score 169-147.

In the locker room after the game, I look at my team and see half of them with their heads down with their eyes staring at the floor and half of them with their eyes fixated on me waiting for me to say something. I said the only thing I could say to them at this time. “Well guys, you all were a part of history tonight. Congratulations. Practice tomorrow at 9:00am. Don’t be late.”

Morale of the story: After you have had a bad day, forget it and move on.


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