By David Head |
March 15, 2024
Wilt Chamberlain (#13) of the Philadelphia Warriors fights for the rebound with Tom Heinsohn (#15) of the Boston Celtics during an NBA game on November 25, 1959 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images)

What to make of the fevered speculation that his 100-point single-game record is a lie.

After more than sixty years, the late basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain still holds the NBA record for most points in a game: 100, posted in a March 2, 1962 contest between Chamberlain’s Philadelphia Warriors and the New York Knicks. That’s 19 more points than Kobe Bryant, in second place, ever registered in a single night. It’s 31 more than Michael Jordan’s highest single-game score, and 39 more than LeBron James’s or Shaquille O’Neal’s top scores. And Bryant, Jordan, James, and O’Neal all had a three-point line. Chamberlain tallied his points one and two at a time. Despite being an easy stat to check—just look at the box score!—a corner of the sports social media world believes it didn’t happen. The 100-point game, they say, was a hoax engineered by the NBA for publicity. This conspiracy theory has been around for years, but seems to have be going through a resurgence of late.

“The skeptics populate TikTok, YouTube, Reddit, Facebook and X/Twitter with videos and posts,” writes Paul Farhi in the Athletic. Search “Wilt Chamberlain hoax” or “Was the 100 point game faked?” and you’ll find yourself down a rabbit hole of disbelief.

Although the existence of 100-point-game trutherism feels too ridiculous to contemplate, it’s worth discussing because it originates in a kind of presentism—applying today’s attitudes, assumptions, and expectations to the past—that is all too common in other areas of our public discourse.

Watch those videos about the conspiracy theory and you’ll see doubters point to a series of things that don’t add up for a modern audience. By far the most common objection is that no visual recording of the game survives. No game tape means there possibly wasn’t a game at all. ESPN podcaster Pat McAfee was alarmed last year when he learned that there is no video of the game. “That sure sounds like something from back in the day” when sports journalists “used to just make s*** up,” McAfee said. “That was the first time I heard there’s no footage of this, and in 2023 [when] there’s no footage of anything it’s hard not to just be like ‘Oh, the tooth fairy came.’”

In fact, an audio recording from the game exists (which McAfee accepted as evidence), but it is not a full broadcast from a radio station (which led one of his cohosts to smell a fake). The recording was made by a college student with an old-fashioned tape recorder while listening to a rebroadcast of the fourth quarter early the next morning. Raising eyebrows, the audio only surfaced in 1988. And one of the broadcasters misstated the score, saying it was 169–150 and later 169–146. The official result was 169–147.

Truthers point to several other seeming anomalies. The game was played not in Philadelphia or New York but in out-of-the-way Hershey, Pennsylvania, with about 4,000 people attending.

Aside from the broadcaster’s misstatements of the score—a discrepancy of a sort familiar to historians who have studied original documents in just about any field—nearly all of the red flags are easily explained by the simple fact that professional basketball in 1962 was far from the sports media powerhouse it is today. As Farhi notes, plenty of NBA games were never televised, and an early March contest between the playoff-bound Warriors and the bottom-dwelling Knicks wasn’t exactly must-see TV, especially when Rawhide and The Flintstones were on. The Warriors had a radio broadcast, but the Knicks didn’t broadcast road games. There were no national media deals, and archiving video and audio recordings would have taken a warehouse piled high with reel upon reel, not terabytes on a server.

The game was played in Hershey because NBA owners, desperate to grow the game outside their cities, routinely took their show on the road, like the NFL does now with games in Europe. And as for only 4,000 people attending: It was an NBA game. Meh. Why not stay home and watch Fred and Barney?

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Most revealing to me of the difference between 1962 and today is what happened to the game ball.

Kerry Ryman, a teenager who stormed the court in celebration at game’s end, snatched it from Chamberlain and ran out of the building, the police on his tail. He wanted to sell it, right? No. The kid’s parents tried to give it back to Chamberlain and the Warriors. They weren’t interested. So Ryman played with it. Outside. Until it wore out.

Only in 2000, after sports memorabilia became big business, did he auction it, bringing in just over $67,000. That’s a far cry from Major League Baseball preparing special baseballs with invisible markings during Aaron Judge’s 2022 quest to break Roger Maris’s homerun record. The league wanted the record-breaking ball authenticated. It brought $1.5 million at auction.

It’s easy to dismiss the internet noise about the 100-point game as just internet people doing internet things. Yet, the case for conspiracy, such as it is, rests on the denial of a key insight of historical study: that the past is a different place full of people with assumptions that differ, often subtly but profoundly, from our own.

Without an appreciation of change over time, it’s tempting to see something wrong with the standard account of Chamberlain’s game. NBA games are televised and recorded all the time today. Some rules are different, sure, but it’s the NBA, a global multibillion-dollar brand. It must have always been that way, right?

If Wilt Chamberlain was his era’s LeBron James, he must have been just as famous, right? “I know it’s early in the NBA’s history, and maybe the sport wasn’t as big in 1962 as it is now,” one YouTuber admits, “but to not have a televised version of this game or video of this game is honestly so wild and raises so many red flags for me.” It’s only a red flag, however, for a 2024 mentality.

We’re all prone to presentism. I’m 44, and recently I had to strain to remember how people were picked up at the airport before cell phones. How did people know when the person they’re picking up was ready? Dredged from beneath layers upon layers of my experience of instant connectivity was the faint memory of parking and walking all the way to the gate. That was a thing pre-9/11. My kids will never believe me. They’ve been to the airport, and it’s never been like that.

More serious examples are easy to find once you start looking. Political debates that invoke history tend to overemphasize ways in which the present is like the past and ignore the many ways in which the past was very different.

For example, I think the Founding Fathers have a lot of wisdom to share. But I also understand their words can only be helpful up to a point because their habits of mind were shaped by their time, and the context in which they spoke, wrote, and acted was in important respects very different from ours. That doesn’t mean twenty-first people are always enlightened and eighteenth-century people were always backwards and benighted. That error is just another manifestation of presentism. My point is just that the pastness of the past is something to wrestle with as we make decisions today.

The study of history is the best way to understand how the past can—and can’t—inform the present. Sadly, the study of history is in diminishing supply at all levels.

In K–12, history too often gets crowded out by math, reading, and standardized testing of math and reading. As colleges focus more and more on career readiness, the study of the history of premodern periods feel like a dying species as the profession focuses its energy on modern history and its direct ties to contemporary politics. In 2022, James Sweet, then president of the American History Association, tried to warn colleagues about the danger of presentism in the recent trend of writing history with contemporary politics at the fore. “This new history,” Sweet wrote, “often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines.” He got roasted for his trouble.

Trutherism about Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game shouldn’t be taken seriously on the merits. It’s clear that he scored 100 points that night in 1962. Yet, the controversy that has ensnared Chamberlain’s accomplishment, outlandish and frivolous though it is, shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. It’s a reminder that we are all vulnerable to presentism—and that, as the study of history declines, the problem of presentism is sure to arise more often on questions of much graver importance.