When I chat with my fellow basketball addicts, I often use the construction “the tyranny of TV.” My pals understand it to mean the overwhelming need of televised sportscasts to have well, footage and structure–a star and a familiar narrative. But sometimes I use that expression in reference to basketball’s ahistorical presentation. It’s often as if NBA history consists of some guy named Russell, Willis running out of that tunnel, and a skyhook, before the dark ages ended, and the dynamic duo of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson burst onto the scene in 1979.
Lost in that all too commonplace approach is the greatest NBA season of all time, 1961-’62. Two accomplishments that season are familiar to many basketball fans: on March 2, 1962, Wilt Chamberlain, the center for the Philadelphia Warriors, scored 100 points in a game in a 169-147 win over the New York Knicks, and Oscar Robertson, point guard for the Cincinnati Royals, averaged a triple double for the entire season by averaging 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds per contest. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Chamberlain’s game, perhaps the greatest individual feat in a team sport, was typical of his amazing season. For the 80 game regular season, Wilt averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds per game. 50.4 points per game for an entire season!! It gets better. In the playoffs, after surviving a tough five game tilt against the Syracuse Nationals, Wilt’s Warriors (now there’s a headline writer’s dream), took on Russell’s Celtics, who at 60-20, sported the NBA’s best record. The Celtics dynasty was at its peak; Boston had won three of the last four titles. It was a seesaw series with each team successfully defending home court. This set up a game 7 at Boston Garden. Through six games, Russell had slowed but not contained Chamberlain who was averaging 35 points a game. In Game 7 Russell put the clamps on Wilt holding him to a mere 22 points, but Chamberlain’s teammates picked up the slack. It came down to Boston’s final possession and guard Sam Jones hit the game winner with two seconds left for a 109-107 win.
Then the NBA Finals topped that series for drama. The matchup pitted the Celtics versus the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers were led by a pair of future Hall of Famers, forward Elgin Baylor who averaged 38.3 points and 18.6 rebounds per game that season, and guard Jerry West who filled up the stat sheet with 30.3 points, 7.9 boards and 5.4 assists per game. It was another nail biter of a series. The Lakers won game 2 in Boston but the Celtics put the series back on serve with a game 4 win in L.A. In game 5, Baylor went off, scoring 61 points but the Celtics prevailed 126-121. The Lakers won game 6, so like the Eastern Finals, the series shifted back to Boston Garden for a game 7. This time it was the visitors with the ball in a tied game as the clock ticked down in regulation, but the Lakers Frank Selvy missed a shot and the game went into overtime. Yes, a Game 7 of the NBA Finals that went into overtime. The Celtics won 110-107.
So let’s see, 1961-’62 featured two of the greatest individual seasons in league history, it’s most spectacular single game accomplishment and two dramatic late round series, including an OT game 7, leading to a title by the NBA’s signature franchise. You’d think there’d be reminders at every commercial break, but for one problem. No live footage. A season this good should have its story told through stills if necessary.
I have been watching the NBA for 44 years now, yet when I look at the 1961-’62 season, I feel like I came to the party late.
Martin Johnson wrote a weekly NBA column for the New York Sun from 2003-’08, and for http://www.theroot.com from 2008-’10. His sportswriting has also appeared in the NY Times, Wall St. Journal and the Atlantic Monthly.