Jim & Wilt Chamberlain:
Their unlikely trip together
to basketball's Hall of Fame

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basketball + tapeJim & Wilt — page 2

he Post article's author also posed a contrast with today's writers. He was a 27-year-old college dropout, son of a high school English teacher, and a moonlighting newspaper man trying to support a fast-growing family in Queens, New York. His name was Jimmy Breslin, and within seven years one of the most important newspapers in America, the New York Herald Tribune, would build its new image around him and another unknown named Tom Wolfe.

jb today  By today's standards, Breslin's humble academic credentials wouldn't get him into the lobby of a major news outlet, never mind hired and published. (Breslin tells of the time he was reminiscing with the legendary Mike Royko and the latter lamented, "We're the last of our kind. Not because we're the best, but because nobody else would ever hire anybody like us.") But back in 1956, Breslin was beginning to land some freelance work between newspaper stints with the Long Island Press (where he gave migraines to the management—I know this because years later I'd be working for that management when they migrated to Massachusetts and they'd go pale every time you mentioned Breslin's name). Though this was only his third national piece, it's ironic that a writer who someday would win a Pulitzer Prize for defending the "little guy" made his first national splash by writing about a guy seven-foot-one. (For an online audio interview with Breslin, click NPR-OnPoint . For a taste of Breslin at his finest, click Mets, an excerpt from his book Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?)

"R"eading the Chamberlain article that was sandwiched between cigarette ads pledging 20,000 filters and typewriter ads that promised 38 percent better grades for students who type their papers, I thought, "Here's my oral report. What better subject in the birthplace of basketball (Springfield, MA) than someone who's going to change the game forever?"

On that day in the late fall of 1956, Wilt, Breslin, and I were relative unknowns but by the time I finished my presentation, the English teacher-nun was recruiting me for the debate team and arranging an audition with the drama coach. After that, high school life would never be the same for me—thanks to Wilt and Jimmy Breslin.

After that my relationship with Wilt cooled for a few years; the two of us had other things on our plates. In order to cope with Chamberlain's talents, the college game had to rewrite its rule book. As the Basketball Hall of Fame notes: "Because Chamberlain's skills were so far advanced than his competitors, several rule changes were enacted to harness his awesome ability. These rules changes included widening the lane, instituting offensive goaltending and revising rules governing inbounding the ball and shooting free throws."

 van meter dormvan meter dorm 2 
Van Meter dormitory

   Wilt spent two years playing at Kansas and then departed for a brief barnstorming tenure with the Harlem Globetrotters until signing with his hometown Philadelphia Warriors in 1959. That was the same year I checked into Van Meter dormitory at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst as a freshman and headed for the campus radio station (WMUA) in hopes of winning a role as a sports broadcaster. By 1962 I was doing play-by-play for the college basketball and football games on WMUA as well as three commercial stations we were feeding. In March, Coach Matt Zunic's UMass team was completing its most successful basketball season ever and headed for an NCAA tournament while unbeknownst to me, the planets were moving into an alignment that would bring Wilt and me into our most significant collision—Friday evening, March 2, 1962.

Steam pipes in Room 133
steam pipes

   Geographically, Wilt and I were 362 miles apart that night: He was playing an inconsequential regular season game against the hapless New York Knickerbockers in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and I was loafing in my first-floor dorm room. Having grown up in the New York metropolitan area, I was a loyal Knicks fan and tried to follow them from afar, something made easier by my dormitory situation. Van Meter sat on the highest point on the UMass campus, not necessarily a plus for walkers on snowy days but definitely an advantage if you were trying to pull in distant radio stations. A further advantage was the presence of steam pipes that snaked their way from the corner of my room up through five floors of student debris (see left). Place the transistor radio next to the pipes, and you're pulling in New York stations, and even KMOX in St. Louis. Since the Knicks were out of the playoff picture, the game in Hershey wasn't being covered by New York radio but WCAU in Philadelphia was carrying the game—an easy reception if you had 5-story steam pipes in your room.

wilt chamberlainWilt post-game

With a book in hand, my head on a pillow, and the radio secured to the pipes just above my head, I stretched out on the bed and soon fell asleep to the drone of Bill Campbell’s play-by-play broadcast. And there I stayed until I awoke around midnight to the newscast. "I wonder how bad the Knicks did," I wondered and waited for the sports recap. What I heard next quickly shook the sleep from my head: The Warriors had beat the Knicks, 169-147, led by Wilt Chamberlain who had scored a record 100 points!

"T"he shock of Wilt's never-before (and never-since) achievement was immediately smothered by my shame in having slept through one of sports' historic moments. But then I was granted a reprieve—the announcer was explaining that WCAU would replay a tape of the game's last quarter at 3:30 that morning.

   All was not lost, after all. I immediately pulled the Webcor reel-to-reel tape recorder from the closet, something my girlfriend Susan Kelleher (later to become my wife) had loaned me for the semester. With the recorder propped beside the radio, which was taped to the steam pipes, I was ready to record the broadcast for what I thought was my own personal use. Little did I know.

dormitory toilet lights

Those pesky florescent
lights in the bathrooms.

Staying awake for another three hours wasn't the biggest challenge, at this point. Van Meter's bathrooms were my big concern. In those days, Van Meter was an all-male dorm, and its bathrooms were illuminated by florescent lights, things that would wreak havoc with radio reception. Somehow I had to insure that all eight of the bathrooms were in total darkness at 3:30 am. And that's why the game's schedule—a Friday night—was so fortunate. In those days, UMass dormitories frequently emptied on weekends as their residents headed home to their families and sweethearts. Thus on that Friday evening/Saturday morning, I patrolled the toilets (left), turning off each and every light and, blessedly, they stayed off for the broadcast.

By the time the replay began, I'd already figured out a way to use the tape. My friend and broadcast partner, Barry Brooks, and I would soon be broadcasting UMass' NCAA tournament game and would have our biggest listening audience ever. Since it was difficult to round up a half-time guest for away-games, why not use the tape? Since we were a nonprofit operation, I guessed we'd have no problem securing permission from WCAU (which proved true).

reel-to-reel tapeAnd so it was that at the appointed time, all was poised and ready for the replay, and the taping went perfectly. There was the occasional near fade-out of the signal but hardly enough to wipe out the words. And, according to plan, we used the tape at half-time when UM played and lost to New York University several weeks later. The tape then went back into its cardboard container, and was dumped into a closet. There were about a dozen moves in the years that followed and the box of old tapes tagged along with my old books, none of us dreaming where we would all end up 30 years later.

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Jim Trelease © 2006


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