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Fifty years ago, Hershey was magical

March 4, 2012

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The smell of chocolate hung like some sweet cloud over Hershey, Pa. For a young kid, the drive into that town was like crossing the bridge into Willy Wonka’s factory.

In the summer, Hershey was about as close to heaven as a kid could get. There was the chocolate, the roller-coaster rides at the nearby amusement park and the football.

Almost every year, at the start of the NFL training camp, my father and I made the 95-mile trip to Hershey to watch the Philadelphia Eagles work out.

I still remember quarterback Sonny Jurgensen lying on his back, resting his head against his helmet as his teammates sweated through warm-up drills in the August humidity.

When the morning calisthenics were done, he got up and slung passes for an hour or so, then walked over to the ropes, where I was standing wide-eyed, kibitzed and signed autographs.

The Eagles often played their first exhibition game at a high-school stadium in Hershey. And the NBA’s Warriors, and later the 76ers, played a few regular-season games in an old barn of a building, the Hershey Arena.

Fifty years ago, Hershey was a magical place. You could go to see some of the best players of the era up close.

And 50 years ago in that old barn, Wilt Chamberlain did something probably nobody in the game will do again. On March 2, 1962, against a New York Knicks team decimated by injuries and not very good to begin with, Chamberlain scored 100 points. He took 63 shots and made 36.

Imagine what the coverage of that moment would be like today. The game would be an instant classic on ESPN, shown over and over again. Every bucket would be analyzed. Every finger roll would be replayed.

But in 1962, few games were televised and there were no crews in the arena filming on this night. None of the New York papers sent writers to the game. There were just 4,124 people in the stands. Wilt scored 100 points in virtual isolation.

I was 12 at the time, a crazy, nerdy sports fan. (Some things haven’t changed.) I was listening in my bedroom to Bill Campbell’s call of the game.

Campbell was the perfect person for this perfect night. His rich, deep voice was synonymous with all of Philadelphia sports. He was the voice of the 1960 championship Eagles. He was the somber historian who called the collapse of the 1964 Phillies. And he was there on Wilt’s night.

For a Philadelphia sports fan, listening to Campbell broadcast Wilt’s assault on 100 was like listening to Walter Cronkite describe Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk.

Obviously, Chamberlain was unstoppable that night, and at halftime Campbell said something like, “You might want to call your friends and tell them about this game. We might be witnessing something remarkable.”

Dutifully, I went into the living room and told my father what was happening. And I called my pal Bruce from up the street.

In my living room, on a console that was roughly the size of a boxcar, we listened to the second half as Wilt “dipper dunked” on Darrell Imhoff and other smaller, less formidable Knicks. Chamberlain fouled out Imhoff in 20 minutes.

We listened as Chamberlain, a notoriously poor free-throw shooter, made 28 of 32 from the line, shooting underhanded like Rick Barry.

A few years ago, Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims, a fellow Philadelphian, gave me a copy of Campbell’s biography: “Bill Campbell, The Voice of Philadelphia Sports.” The book contained a CD of some of Campbell’s favorite calls, including Chamberlain’s 100th point.

It’s a gift I treasure.

“Into Chamberlain,” Campbell begins on the scratchy recording. “He made it! He made it! A dipper dunk! He made it! The fans are all over the floor! They’ve stopped the game! One hundred points for Wilt Chamberlain!”

The perfection of sports is in the memories of these moments, sweet as Hershey’s chocolate.

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