By Neil Beldock
The numbers Wilt Chamberlain posted during the 1961-62 season may represent the greatest individual season any athlete in the modern era, in any sport, has put forth.
The list of the NBA players who hold the five (5) greatest single season scoring averages is dominated by one name; Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt’s name appears 4 times.
Atop the list is Wilt’s average points-per-game for the 1961-62 season, a season in which he averaged an amazing 50.4 points per game while playing for the Philadelphia Warriors (now the Golden State Warriors).
In this article, we will break the season down by games and segments in order to provide a visual of sorts of how Wilt accomplished the amazing feat of averaging 50.4 points per game.
It will be a unique historical journey back to a time when the game of basketball was just beginning to evolve into the game we see today, with some of the greatest players ever just beginning to launch their careers.
Undoubtedly, this article will awaken memories of forgotten players and names. There will even be some surprises as well.
Before we delve into the season itself, it’s quite the compelling exercise to put Wilt’s 50.4 points-per-game average into a perspective by comparing that accomplishment to other great individual athletic accomplishments.
50.4 Points Per Game Compared To Other Great Individual Feats:
How astonishing is Wilt’s average of 50.4 points per game?
Consider that the second highest scoring average ever by someone other than Wilt Chamberlain was Elgin Baylor’s 38.3 points-per-game that same season of 1961-62.
That means that Wilt’s average of 50.4 points-per-game is 31.59% greater than the player closest to him. How does that stack up in comparison to other players in other sports……Here’s a quick look;
In 1994, Tony Gwynn’s batting average for the San Diego Padres was .394. That was the second highest batting average since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.
Williams hitting .406 is the highest batting average in what is considered the modern era of baseball.
So, what would Ted William’s average have to be to represent a number which is 31.59% greater than the 2nd best? How does .518 sound……
In football, Eric Dickerson set the single season record for yards gained with 2,105 total yards which equates to an average of 131 yards per game (1984).
The second highest total is Adrian Peterson’s 2,097 yards in 2012.
So how many yards would Dickerson have had to gain to match a 31.59% increase of Peterson’s number? How does 2,767 yards and 173 yards per game sound…….
Payton Manning holds the single season record for most passing yards with 5,477 in 2012 (342 per game). The second highest total is 5,476 by Drew Brees in 2011. With those numbers being a virtual tie, lets go to the 3rd highest passing total for purposes of this analysis which was 5,235 by Tom Brady also in 2011.
So for Peyton Manning to exceed Brady’s passing total by 31.59%, he would have had to thrown for a total of 7,130 yards, or 445.67 yards per game, over 100 yards more per game than what he actually threw for.
And in what is perhaps the analogy which best illustrates how dominant 50.4 points per game truly is, lets bring the statistically most dominant hockey player of all-time, Wayne Gretzky into the discussion.
Gretzky, over his career, is probably the only athlete who’s overall individual numbers and statistical dominance compares to that which Wilt accomplished in the modern era of sports.
But even The Great One, as he was known, couldn’t match the single season dominance of Wilt’s 50.4 points per game.
Gretzky’s single greatest season was the 1985-86 season when he posted 215 total points (2.62 per game). Second on the list by someone not named Wayne Gretzky is the 199 points posted by Mario Lemieux during the 1988-89 season.
So how many points would Gretzky have had to record in order to be 31.59% greater than the 199 points Lemieux posted? How does 262 points, or 3.19 points per game sound……
Within whatever context it is viewed, averaging 50.4 points per game is a phenomenal feat and accomplishment, maybe the greatest ever in sports history behind the home-run accomplishments of Babe Ruth.
So lets take a look at that 1961-62 season and see how and against whom did Wilt average 50.4 points-per-game.
Opening Night & Games 1-10:
The Warriors opened the season on October 31, 1961 with a 118-113 loss to the Lakers in Los Anegles.
Wilt got his season off to pretty good start by scoring 48 points and grabbing 25 rebounds in the loss.
Tom Gola (LaSalle) would be the next high scorer for the Warriors with 14 points. Guy Rodgers (Temple), Tom Meschery (Iowa) and Paul Arizin (Villanova) would each add 13 points with Al Attles (North Carolina A&T) scoring 12 points.
Elgin Baylor, starting his fourth professional season (38 points) and Jerry West, starting his second professional season (35 points) would lead the Lakers. Both of these players were just beginning to establish themselves as dominant superstars who would be part of a young core of players redefining the game of basketball.
The Warriors would win 3 of their next 4 games, beating the Lakers and Knicks, before splitting a back-to back with the Syracuse Nationals.
Over that 4 game stretch, Wilt would average 52.0 points per game (57, 53, 55 & 43 respectively).
The players given the task of battling Wilt over that 4 game stretch include Jim Krebs (SMU) and Rudy LaRusso (Dartmouth) of the Lakers, Darrall Imhoff (Cal-Berkeley) and Phil Jordan (Whitworth University) of the Knicks, and the 7 foot 3 inch Swede Halbrook (Oregon State) of the Nationals.
Wilt’s 57 point performance came in the second game of an opening season back-to-back against the Lakers. He also grabbed 32 rebounds in a 122-115 win.
Other standout performances during that 4 game stretch include a 29 point performance by Paul Arizin in the win against the Lakers in which Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were also spectacular scoring 36 & 34 points respectively.
In the win against the Knicks, the 6-foot 10 inch Phil Jordan would do all he could against Wilt by contributing 27 points while Richie Guerin (Iona) was also outstanding for the Knicks posting 29 points.
In splitting the two back-to-back contests with the Nationals, the great Dolph Schayes (NYU) was outstanding scoring 28 and 31 points respectively. Wilt’s future teammate Hal Greer (Marshall), who was entering his 4th season in the NBA, would help Schayes by posting games of 23 and 24 points.
Paul Arizin would continue his stellar play for the Warriors scoring 25 and 31 points in the two games against the Nationals.
Over the next 5 games, the Warriors would go 3-2. This stretch would be highlighted by two matchups with the Bill Russell led Boston Celtics.
The Warriors would lose both of those contests against the Celtics with Russell limiting Wilt to 28 points in the first game, and Wilt bouncing back to post 41 points in the rematch.
So after 10 games of this historic season, the Warriors posted a won-loss record of 6-4 with Wilt averaging 49.6 points per game. His high outputs were a pair of back-to-back 58 point performances against the Detroit Pistons while battling the 6 foot 8 inch Bon Ferry (St. Louis U) and the 7-footer Walter Dukes (Seton Hall).
Over the next 10 games the Warriors would once again post a 6-4 record with Wilt averaging 43.7 points per game over those 10 contests.
Highlighted within those 10 games were a 56 point performance in a loss against the Lakers, a 51 point performance in a win against the Chicago Packers (who would become the Baltimore Bullets and then Washington Wizards), and (once again) being limited to 31 points by Bill Russell and the Celtics in a 13 point loss.
A 60 point performance in a 21 point win against the Lakers would highlight the final game of the second 10-game stretch of the season.
In the first game against the Lakers, a 4-point loss, Elgin Baylor would lead the Lakers with 37 points, Jerry West would add 24 points, and the combination of Jim Krebs and Rudy LaRusso battling Wilt in the paint would contribute a combined total of 31 points (Krebs-17, LaRusso-14). Tom Meschery and Paul Arizin would contribute 18 & 16 points respectively for the Warriors.
On the evening of November 15th, the Warriors would face the Cincinnati Royals and their budding superstar Oscar Robertson who was entering his 2nd year in the NBA.
Robertson, another of the group of young core players transforming the game, and on his way to averaging a triple-double for the season, was spectacular scoring 49 points. Wilt would counter the Big O with 43 points of his own in leading the Warriors to a 12 point win.
The game against the Chicago Packers was historic in that it was the first of many battles which would be waged between Wilt and the then 6 foot 11 inch rookie and future Hall-of-Famer Walt Bellamy (Indiana) of the Packers. Bellamy was yet another young gun helping the league evolve to new levels of play.
Over the years to come, Bellamy would be one of the tougher match-ups Wilt would face, but not-so-much on this night as Bellamy was only be able to contribute 14 points to Wilt’s 51. Paul Arizin once again provided support for Wilt by scoring 22 points in the win. Future ABA / Indiana Pacers coach Slick Leonard would lead the Packers with 21 points.
In the loss to the Celtics, Tommy Heinsohn (Holy Cross) would lead the way for the Celtics scoring 31 points. Sam Jones (North Carolina Central) would add 24 and Russell would score 17. Bob Cousy (Holy Cross) would help the cause with 14 points and his usual exceptional floor-leadership. Paul Arizin continued his fine season and did his best to help Wilt by scoring 22 points for the Warriors.
(Walt Bellamy & Wilt)
During the next 10-game stretch the Warriors would once again post a 6-4 record, but Wilt seemed to be upping his game.
During games 21-30 of the season, Wilt would average 50.8 points per game.
After starting the next 10 game stretch with relatively modest production by Wilt’s standards, posting games of 37, 39 and 39 points respectively, Wilt exploded for 78 points and 43 rebounds in a 4-point loss to the Lakers, and followed that performance up with a 61 point performance in a win over Walt Bellamy and the Packers.
Bellamy however, in his second-ever meeting against Wilt would answer the bell big-time posting 39 points of his own.
The 10-game stretch would culminate with the Warriors winning 4 of the remaining 5 games, the only loss coming at the hands of the Celtics.
Over that final 5 game stretch Wilt would score 55, 54, 52, 43 and 50 points.
The 52 points would be against the Celtics and Bill Russell with Russell adding 21 points of his own to compliment 35 points from Sam Jones and 23 from Tommy Heinsohn.
The 55 point effort would come in the second of a back-to-back win and sweep of the Packers as Walt Bellamy was beginning to establish himself as an elite player by adding 33 points of his own.
And in the final game of the 10-game stretch, Wilt would score 50 points in a 2-point win over the Packers, but Bellamy once again flexed his muscles posting 45 points and sending a message to Wilt that he would not be taken lightly in his battles with Wilt.
The next 10-game stretch of the season, games 31-40 would see Wilt start out very strong posting point totals of 57, 55, 59, 51, 53 & 60 points through the first 6 games of the stretch as the season began to approach the mid-point.
He would tail off over the next 3 games scoring “only” 41, 32 and 36 points before rebounding with a 53 point effort in the 40th game of the season.
The Warriors would once again go 6-4 over the 10 game stretch and have an overall record of 24-16 through 40 games.
Highlights during the stretch of games from 31-40 include Oscar Robertson scoring 28 points and posting a triple-double in a 7-point Warrior win over the Cincinnati Royals. Wilt would score 57 points battling the powerful 6 foot 8, 240 pound Wayne Embry (Miami-Ohio), who would score 25 points of his own.
Wilt would score 55 points and Paul Arizin would add 33 points in a 15 point rout of the Pistons, who now had the 6 foot 9 inch Ray Scott from the University of Portland (14 points) on board to battle Wilt.
Wilt scored 59 points in a double-overtime 136-135 loss to the Knicks in New York. The Knicks would be led by Richie Guerin’s 40 points. Willie Naulls (UCLA) would add 33 for the Knicks and the Knicks center, Phil Jordan, had one of his better games against Wilt posting 24 points.
In a 7-point win over the Syracuse Nationals Wilt would score 51 points. Hal Greer stood out for the Nationals with a 26 point effort.
On the evening of December 29th, 1961, those who were in attendance got to witness one of the greatest duels in NBA history to that point in time.
In a 123-118 Warriors victory over the Lakers, Wilt went for 60 points while Elgin Baylor just about matched him point-for-point scoring 52 points of his own.
In yet another match-up against the Celtics, the Warriors would once again come up on the short end of a 116-111 overtime affair although Wilt dominated Russell scoring 41 points to Russell’s 11. But the Warriors could not offset 36 points from Sam Jones and 27 from Tommy Heinsohn.
Back-to-back games in Los Angeles on January 1st & 3rd would result in 2 losses for Wilt and the Warriors.
On January 1st, both Jerry West (36) and Elgin Baylor (33) would out-score Wilt who would score 32 points. This would mark just the second time all season Wilt was not the leading scorer.
Now, it is no secret that Wilt was known to enjoy the good life, so is there any surprise that perhaps his worst game of the season came on the day after New Years Eve? Hmmmm………
And perhaps the party in L.A. continued for Wilt because 2 nights later he was still sub-par in scoring 36 points in a 1-point loss. Jerry West went for 44, out scoring Wilt for a 2nd consecutive game.
Wilt seemed to have recovered two night later as the Warriors crushed the St. Louis Hawks 134-116 behind 53 points from Wilt and 36 from Paul Arizin. The great Bob Pettit (LSU) scored 34 points for the Hawks.
With the season reaching it’s mid-point, Wilt, through the first 40 games, was averaging 48.5 points per game.
The next 10 games would see the Warriors go 5-5 with Wilt averaging 47.9 points per game.
During games 5, 6 & 7 of the 10 games stretch Wilt would put together back-to-back-to-back performances where he would post 73, 62 and 62 points.
In his 73 point performance against the Chicago Packers and his new-found nemesis Walt Bellamy, Wilt would also grab 36 rebounds in the 18 point win. Bellamy would continue to impress, battling Wilt with 35 points of his own. And Paul Arizin would continue his exceptional season adding 26 points for the Warriors.
Wilt would post 62 points against Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics, but would once again come up short losing 145-136 as Sam Jones scored 30, Tommy Heinsohn 27 and Russell 23 leading the way for the now 34-8 Celtics.
Other notable performances during that 10 game stretch include Bob Petit scoring 30 points and Cliff Hagan (Kentucky) adding 27 as the Hawks routed the Warriors 137-112.
Petit also scored 37 points in a second game against the Warriors, but that would not be enough to offset the 62 Wilt scored in leading the Warriors to a 136-130 victory.
Hal Greer, continuing an excellent season, scored 28 points in a 129-120 Syracuse Nationals win.
Oscar Robertson posted 38 points and a triple-double in a season of many triple-doubles for Oscar, offsetting 52 points from Wilt and leading the Cincinnati Royals to a 145-128 win.
One week later Oscar would score 28 points in a second consecutive Royals victory over the Warriors as Wilt’s 54 points wouldn’t be enough.
After a flat stretch of play, the Warriors upped their game over the next 10 going 8-2 to raise their season record to 37-23.
Wilt was remarkably consistent during this stretch averaging 50.1 points per game.
Their was a high output of 62 points in a win against the Syracuse Nationals and a low of 35 points in a win against the Knicks, but other than those two games Wilt posted numbers of 55, 47, 53, 50, 55, 53, 41 & 50 points in one of the more consistent stretches of his season.
In yet another classic battle, which was beginning to define the match-up, Wilt scored 55 points to Walt Bellamy’s 47 points in a 122-108 Warrior win.
With Bill Russell not playing in back-to-back games, the Warriors finally broke through beating the Celtics twice in a row as Wilt posted games of 53 and 50 points respectively.
(Bill Russell Holding Wilt Back)
Games 61 through 70 would see the Warriors post a 6-4 record with Wilt averaging 50.3 points per game.
This stretch would be marked by the Warriors once again sweeping the Celtics in back-to-back games, only this time Bill Russell was playing.
In the first win, a 126-124 victory in Boston, Wilt would go for 48 points to Russell’s 21. Wilt got help from his teammate Tom Meschery who added 30 points for the Warriors. The Warriors were able to hold both Sam Jones and Tommy Heinsohn to 23 points each. These two had been destroying the Warriors in previous games during the season.
In the second game of the back-to-back in Philadelphia, in another tight contest, the Warriors would once again prevail with a hard-fought and physical 107-106 victory. Wilt would score 38 points and limit Russell to 11.
Paul Arizin backed up Wilt’s 38 points with 31 of his own and the Warriors once again were able to limit the output from both Sam Jones and Tommy Heinsohn, holding them to 21 and 20 points respectively.
In a February 13th game against the Royals in Cincinnati, those present would get to witness yet another classic duel in a season marked by classic duels.
Wilt would score 65 points in a 152-132 Warriors win offsetting 42 points and another triple double from Oscar Robertson.
Three night later, the Warriors and Royals would put forth another classic battle featuring two of the greatest players to ever play the game.
The Warriors would once again prevail behind 48 points from Wilt, 25 points from Tom Gola and 24 points from Tom Meschery. Oscar would post a triple-double highlighted by a 40 point output.
And in game 69 of the season, yet another classic duel would be seen.
The Warriors would win 112-107 behind Wilt’s 48 points, but the Packers would not go down without a fight and 44 points from Walt Bellamy.
Games 71-80 & The End Of The Season:
Over the final 10 games of the season Wilt would average 54.6 points per game to raise his overall season average to the amazing level of 50.4 points per game……
But of course all that is secondary to the evening he had on March 2 in Hershey, Pennsylvania against the Knicks when Wilt would score 100 points.
Wilt was 36 for 63 from the field that night, connecting on 57.1% of his shots.
But what is even more amazing is that Wilt, a notoriously poor foul shooter, was 28 for 32 from the charity stripe that evening!!
The Warriors finished the season with a won-loss record of 49-31, finishing 2nd in the Eastern Division behind the Celtics who posted a won-loss record of 60-20.
In the playoffs the Warriors would defeat the Syracuse Nationals in 5 games and meet the Boston Celtics in the conference finals.
The series against the Celtics would be an epic series that would not only go 7 games, but not be decided until the final 2-seconds of the 7th game when old nemeses Sam Jones would score to give the Celtics the win and a trip to the NBA Finals.
The Celtics would go on to defeat the Lakers in 7 games to capture the league championship.
A Spectacular Season & The Birth Of An Era
The 1961-62 NBA season was not only a spectacular season for Wilt Chamberlain, but a season which marked an evolution in professional basketball, ushering in the 1960’s when the game would reach new heights of excitement and excellence.
Wilt, in just his 3rd season, led the league in scoring and rebounding pulling down 25.2 rebounds per game, just edging out Bill Russell’s 23.6 rebounds per game. Bill Russell would win the MVP Award.
Oscar Robertson, in just his 2nd season, was spectacular averaging a triple-double for the season; 30.8 points per game, 12.5 rebounds per game and 11.4 assists per game. This would be the first time a triple-double was ever achieved over an entire season, a feat which would not be replicated for another 55 years when, during the 2016-17 season, Russell Westbrook would average a triple-double.
Elgin Baylor, in his 4th season, was spectacular as well averaging 38.3 points and 18.6 rebounds per game.
Jerry West, who just completed his 2nd season, was equally spectacular averaging 30.8 points per game to go along with 7.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists.
Walt Bellamy would win the Rookie-of-the-Year Award, finishing the season averaging 31.6 points and 19.0 rebounds per game.
And 8-year veteran Bob Pettit would have another exceptional season for the St. Louis Hawks posting numbers of 31.1 points and 18.7 rebounds per game.
In retrospect, the 1961-62 season can be seen as the beginning of the next era of basketball where the overall level of play, athleticism and overall excellence would begin to catapult the NBA and the game of basketball to the heights it enjoys today.
1961-62 was not only an amazing season for Wilt Chamberlain, but an amazing season which laid the groundwork for many more to follow.
Youth was beginning to be served in the NBA. A look at the All-NBA 1st & 2nd Teams for 1961-62 clearly evidences a changing of the guard.
Of the five All-NBA 1st Team selections, 1 player had 4 years in the league, 1 had 3-years, and 2 just completed their 2nd seasons (see below).
In comparison, the All-NBA 2nd team was comprised of 3 players in their 6th year, 1 player in his 7th year, and I player in his 12th year (see below).
The league was getting younger, more athletic and better. A true harbinger for what was to come over the next decade and the decades to follow.
1961-62 All-NBA 1st Team:
Wilt – 3rd Year
Bob Pettit – 8th Year
Oscar Robertson – 2nd Year
Elgin Baylor – 4th Year
Jerry West – 2nd Year
1961-62 All NBA 2nd Team:
Bill Russell – 6th Year
Tommy Heinsohn – 6th Year
Bob Cousey – 12th Year
Richie Guerin – 6th Year
Jack Twyman – 7th Year