The Legendary 1962 Season That Changed Basketball Forever
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because history always repeats itself, even in the NBA.
By Gary Thompson
The clock dropped below the final minute, and the previously raucous crowd in Hershey, Pennsylvania, grew quiet. An onslaught of Knicks held off the inevitable basket for as long as the mismatched squad from New York could manage. Joe Ruklick passed on a wide-open layup to loft an alley-oop in Wilt Chamberlain’s direction, and every onlooker in the arena held their breath as they awaited the cherry on top of this superhuman sundae. Wilt stuffed the ball through the hoop for his 36th basket and reached the summit of the grandest display of domination in basketball history: 100 points in a single game.
In terms of individual achievement, the 1962 NBA season was one of the greatest showcases in pro sports history. Interestingly though, as the current NBA regular season comes to a close, we are seeing parallels between the 1962 and 2017 seasons.
With the move of the Lakers to Los Angeles, the NBA had truly become a nationwide, coast-to-coast sport.
Basketball historian Curtis Harris
Russell Westbrook chasing a triple-double average for the Oklahoma City Thunder this season is among the obvious. Oscar Robertson is the only other player to manage this, and that was during the historic 1962 season. Robertson, a point guard for the Cincinnati Royals, flashed a scoring prowess that enabled him to rack up 30.8 points, a playmaking ability to record 11.4 assists and a tenaciousness that brought down 12.5 rebounds per game. The same can be said of Westbrook.
Another similarity to the ’62 season? Chamberlain’s logic-defying 100-point game saw its modern counterpart this year as well, when Golden State’s Klay Thompson forgot how to miss in an early December game against the Pacers. In just 29 minutes, he scored 60 points. Sure, he fell well short of Chamberlain’s otherworldly feat, but his points per minute averaged 2.07 — to Wilt’s 2.06. The fact that Thompson did much of his damage as a jump shooter, as opposed to dominating smaller opponents, makes it all the more awe-inspiring.
But perhaps the most interesting parallel between the two seasons is the MVP race. In what has been described as a historically tough-to-call season for the highest individual honor, it pales in comparison to the decision voters had to make in 1962. Chamberlain averaged an unfathomable 50 points and 25 rebounds. Robertson, meanwhile, had his triple-double. But neither man won. That honor went to Bill Russell, who averaged 23.6 rebounds, 18.9 points, displayed a showstopping defense and led his team to the best record in the NBA. In total, the ’62 season saw six players average more than 30 points — a feat that had occurred just five times in the 15-year history of the NBA up till then. With so many of these all-time greats having career years, it’s hard to look at the ’17 season and not see similar circumstances. Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and LeBron James are all former MVPs or MVP candidates, and they are all setting new career highs in multiple categories.
“With the move of the Lakers to Los Angeles, the NBA had truly become a nationwide, coast-to-coast sport,” says basketball historian Curtis Harris. This meant that “all of the best basketball players were, for the most part, settled into one league,” he explains, noting how these top talents pushed one another to greatness. This, combined with a full embrace of the shot clock, introduced in 1954, set up a perfect storm for the historic 1962 season. Coaches were relaxing their strict team-ball orthodoxy and allowing players to showcase their individual strengths in ways that could push the team to new heights. The faster pace of play due to the shot clock led to more possessions and more opportunities for players to innovate. “Coaches let players be themselves,” says Harris, and with that, many realized a more artistic style of play was possible. Games, in turn, “became more fun to watch and attendance rose.”
Similar factors have helped propel the 2017 season into the history books. While it has had a slower buildup than its ’62 counterpart, embracing the 3-point line in today’s game has hit a critical mass, shaping NBA offenses just as the shot clock did. Game plans and rosters are now constructed around maximizing the effectiveness of 3-pointers. This has led to very high efficiency in scoring, which has created the stat lines that are comparable to the ones that occurred after the influx of volume in 1962.
The NBA also is seeing another renaissance of players being allowed to fully express themselves. Why not let Harden run the point and see what happens? Why shouldn’t Westbrook post a historic usage rate and see the stats he racks up as a result? Why not throw the playbook out the window when someone has a hot hand and see how many points a Klay Thompson or a Devin Booker can drop? This mentality of letting superstars lead a team, rather than constraining them, is impacting the game today as much as it did in 1962. The jaw-dropping statistics are proof that the final product is a whole lot of fun to watch.
Russell’s Celtics dismissed Chamberlain’s Warriors after a two-point victory in Game 7 before going on to defeat Jerry West’s and Elgin Baylor’s high-flying Lakers squad in overtime. At the end of the ’62 season, the traditional style of basketball still won out as Russell walked away with both the MVP and the championship trophy. But it was clear to basketball fans that a new style of play had arrived. Now, the question is, will 2017 cap off this analogy with a systematic team like the Spurs walking away victorious, or will an innovative, high-flying team like the Rockets or Warriors change the story?
- Gary Thompson, OZY Author Contact Gary Thompson