SIXTY YEARS AGO, Wilt Chamberlain posted what is widely regarded to be the greatest individual performance in NBA history, scoring 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors in a win over the New York Knicks. On March 2, 1962, Chamberlain made 36 of his 63 shot attempts and 28 of his 32 free throws — an unlikely success rate for the career 51% free throw shooter — to put up a record that has withstood the test of time.
And only 4,124 fans witnessed it.
Neutral site games were common in the early days of the NBA, as an attempt to expand the league’s audience, so the game was not played in Philadelphia or New York, but instead at the Hershey Sports Arena (now Hersheypark Stadium) in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The game was also not televised, meaning the only fans who saw Chamberlain’s record-setting performance were the less than 5,000 in attendance in Hershey that night.
On Wednesday, the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks will meet (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN app) as part of the NBA’s season-long celebration of the league’s 75th anniversary season, paying homage to the NBA’s single-game scoring record.
Chamberlain’s accomplishment happened so long ago that only six current NBA coaches — Dwane Casey, Rick Carlisle, Tom Thibodeau, Doc Rivers, Alvin Gentry and Gregg Popovich — were alive when he dropped 100 points on the Knicks. But the league’s players and coaches have been witness to countless other epic performances in the 60 years since, so ESPN asked them to recall their favorites. Not surprisingly, the No. 2 all-time scoring game came up often.
IT WAS JUST 16 years ago when Kobe Bryant came as close as anyone has come to matching Chamberlain’s 100-point effort, scoring 81 in a victory over the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22, 2006. The epic performance by the late Los Angeles Lakers legend was far and away the most frequently mentioned when our reporters asked those in the NBA which game came to mind when recalling all-time great individual performances.
“It’s unbelievable that a guy could score 81 points in the NBA in this era,” said New Orleans Pelicans coach Willie Green, who was a third-year guard with the 76ers when Bryant scored 81. “He was just that locked in and that good.”
Added Portland Trail Blazers guard Josh Hart, himself a former Laker: “The stuff that he was doing was totally absurd. It’s hard to pinpoint one or two memories because the whole game was just a highlight reel. I think that was the biggest thing for me. The shots that he was shooting and the tough shots he was making, the shot fake, fadeaway 3s, it was absurd, but just a display of offensive brilliance.”
Bryant scored 51 of his 81 points after halftime, finishing 26-of-46 from the field (including 7-of-13 from 3-point range) and 18-of-20 from the free throw line.
“That game sticks out the most,” said Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram, who joined the Lakers the season after Bryant retired in 2016. “When I think about it being back home, being on the East Coast and having to be up at 10 o’clock at night, it was always something magical he did. Whether it was him getting hot and going for 15 or 20 straight or him closing the fourth quarter, that’s what stands out the most about the NBA for me. That 81-point game just solidified everything.”
“Everybody knows he’s retiring,” DeRozan said. “The will that he showed. Me, what I knew personally what he was dealing with physically that season, I remember he used to tell me there were some games he could barely walk. And he just knew it was the end.”
“For him to go out there and score 60,” DeRozan said, “one of the best, ever, to pick up the ball to end it like he ended it, that’s a hell of an individual effort because it really was all on him. I think he played like 45 minutes, 46 minutes. For him to do that, to go out and leave the game like that, to me that’s the best.”
WHILE BRYANT’S NAME was the most frequently mentioned by today’s players and coaches, he was far from the only one. Others, like current Lakers forward Stanley Johnson, leaned toward one of Bryant’s contemporaries and rivals: LeBron James.
“You could tell [from] the look on his face,” Johnson said, recalling James’ Game 6 performance in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. “Just how dominant he was in every facet. He couldn’t miss a shot. Dunking the basketball. And really doing whatever he had to do in what I think was like a crazy blowout win to put his team back in position to win the series.”
With his Miami Heat trailing 3-2 and facing elimination in Boston, James scored 30 points in the first half en route to 45 for the game, making 19 of his 26 shots to keep Miami alive. The Heat would go on to win the series and add James’ first NBA title two weeks later.
“I witnessed a man drop 50 on damn near one leg to win the Finals,” he said of teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo, who clinched the title and Finals MVP honors with his 50-point performance in the Game 6 win over the Phoenix Suns. “Right now, that’s No. 1 for me. I was right there. Being able to be here, see how hard he works and see him hurt his leg then come back but still dominate how he did, that was crazy. Big play after big play after big play. It was like you can’t make this up.”
It was another Finals performance — one that didn’t even end in a win — that came to mind for Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash.
“If I had to think of one performance it would be my kind of hero, idol, it would be Isiah Thomas playing on one really badly sprained ankle in the Forum in the Finals,” Nash said. “As far as a performance, as hobbled as he was, that’s as good as it gets.”
In Game 6 of the 1988 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Thomas scored 25 points in the third quarter, the last 11 of which came after he briefly left the game because of the aforementioned sprained ankle. He returned and helped the Detroit Pistons rally to take the lead, before the Lakers came back to win. Los Angeles went on to win the series in seven games, but Thomas’s gutty performance still stands out among NBA legends.
“I know how hard it is to perform at the highest level, to be able to do it when he couldn’t even run without limping,” Nash said. “It’s just off the charts as far as the mental toughness, the accuracy under duress is just crazy, on that stage. It’s really hard for small guards to succeed at that level at the end of the road, and for him to do it with an ankle that was shut down is just off the charts impressive.”
THE LEGENDARY PERFORMANCE by Thomas is mostly memorable for a single outstanding quarter, but sometimes it didn’t even take players that long to cement their places in the collective NBA memory.
“Reggie [Miller’s], (8) points in (nine) seconds. That’s a heck of a performance,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd of the Indiana Pacers star’s playoff performance against the Knicks in the 1995 playoffs. “[It was] chaotic. He never quit. He scored, got a steal, scored again. I mean, it was just incredible, what happened. And having the conversation at the same time with Spike. I mean, that’s pretty impressive too.”
“I was a big T-Mac fan, so I was watching all their games, and just seeing him score that quick and knowing the game was over against a great Spurs team like that, that’s probably the biggest thing because the Spurs were dominating,” said LA Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr.
Both Kidd and the man he replaced in Dallas, Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, recalled Larry Bird’s performance in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals in which he posted 36 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists — and one very memorable steal.
“He had an amazing offensive game but he stole the ball, fed Dennis Johnson, and we were able to steal the game back which basically won us the series,” Carlisle said. “Guys like Bird, guys like [Michael] Jordan, are not only great, they just have a sense of the moment and just have a way of pulling off the most incredible plays at the most incredible times.”
Then there was the time when Klay Thompson set an NBA record by scoring 37 points in a single quarter against the Sacramento Kings, such a memorable moment that his coach, Steve Kerr — who has been a part of eight NBA championships as a player and coach, singled it out.
“That was the most unique basketball experience I’ve ever had because it felt like not only Klay was having an out-of-body experience but we all were,” Kerr said. “It was like the beauty of the game just kind of all came together through this one performance. There was so much joy bordering on kind of a religious frenzy.”
While Kerr didn’t cite a great individual performance from his former Bulls teammate, ranked recently by ESPN as the greatest individual player in NBA history, Kidd did. Only it wasn’t from Jordan’s time in Chicago.
“He had 45 at the age of 45,” Kidd said of Jordan, who was actually 38 years old when he lit up Kidd’s New Jersey Nets for 45 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists as a member of the Washington Wizards on New Year’s Eve in 2001. “He was killing us. There was nothing we could do. And he was talking trash. He was letting us know about his age and about how he was teaching us a lesson. He wasn’t flying through the air either. He was just, he was midranging us to death and jelly rolling. So it was pretty cool.”
Jordan wasn’t the only player whose midrange game made an impression. Just ask Nets guard Patty Mills, who paid homage to a player who was long regarded for his “old man game” during his NBA career.
“The first one came to my head was when I was with Portland, Andre Miller, in Dallas, he had a 52-point game in Dallas against the Mavs, with I believe only one 3-pointer,” Mills said, accurately recalling that Miller, a 6-foot-3 guard, scored 52 points by going 21-of-30 inside the arc and making his lone attempt beyond it. “Unbelievable. Really unbelievable. I’m having some feelings come back of just absolutely mind-blown about how he’d done that.”
BILLY DONOVAN LED two championship teams at Florida before becoming the coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who featured the star duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It didn’t take long for those two MVPs to show Donovan what they were capable of on the court.
“I think my second or third game as an NBA coach, both Westbrook and Durant both have 40 in Orlando in a double overtime win,” he said. “We were down by 3 with like two or three seconds to go, and Russell I think throws a bank shot in from half court to send it to overtime. Goes to double overtime. This is my [second] game in the NBA, watching those two guys was pretty incredible.”
As for Westbrook himself, he had a plethora of choices from his own résumé he could have picked when asked about legendary individual performances — “I can go all day if you want. … You want me to go? I’ve got some games,” he said. He honed in on April 9, 2017, when he drained a 36-foot shot at the buzzer to cap a 50-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist win over the Denver Nuggets that gave him the most triple-doubles in a single season in NBA history.
“The biggest thing though for me, other than the record in itself, [was] just being able to do that with the group of guys that we had,” Westbrook said. “Young, fun group, amazing season to do that at that moment with a game or so left, on the road was special. It was a good overall moment, experience, not just for me but for my guys, my teammates and the organization as well.
“The best game I ever played? Uh… Mmmm… I think… Oooh, s— I don’t know,” he added. “I guess this is a good problem to have if I can’t think about it.”
ESPN’s Kendra Andrews, Jamal Collier, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Dave McMenamin and Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this story.