50 years ago, in Hershey, PA, the Philadelphia 76ers faced off against the New York Knicks. When the dust settled, in front of zero television cameras and barely any radio evidence, Wilt Chamberlain put on the greatest offensive show in NBA history.
100 points. 36-63 shooting from the field. A remarkable 28-32 on free throws considering Wilt shot free throws as bad as Shaq. Throw in 25 rebounds and it was an incredible display of offensive genius.
The more you get away from it, the more you realize how extremely difficult it was and is now. I remember watching the last 5 minutes of Kobe's 81-point performance in utter awe because I didn't think I'd ever see somebody go off like that again.
I consider Kobe's performance one of the greatest of the modern era. It's up there with his 62 points in 3 quarters, David Robinson's 71-point game, Shaq's 61 and 18, Michael Jordan's 63 against the 1986 Celtics in Boston, Sleepy Floyd's 51 points vs. 1987 Lakers and any more you can think of. But they aren't greater than Wilt's for two reasons.
1. How many centers have followed suit?
If you look at the greatest scoring performances in history, only one center has scored more than 70 (D. Robinson's 71 on the last game of the 1993-94 season to get the scoring title). Considering that Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon (who's career high is 52 in Year 12) might be the most athletic centers of the modern era along with Dwight, that's impressive. And Robinson only topped 50 twice besides that.
Let's go further. Only two more centers have ever scored 60 points in an NBA game. George Mikan and Shaquille O'Neal both scored 61 points.
We typically think centers should score a lot of points cause they are bigger than anybody. But considering the 1980's-early 2000's was a glorious time for big men, putting up huge numbers was hard to come by. It also means it's a lot easier and likely for a great scoring guard to score 50-60 if they get going because they can do more with the ball.
Oh and if you want to include power forwards - only Larry Bird, Karl Malone and Tom Chambers have scored 60 points. So I'm not dismissing what Kobe has done but I'm saying it's easier for an elite guard to do it than an elite center. Which leads me to my 2nd point.
2. In the modern era with better athletes, why haven't guys put up more points?
We have Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant drawing comparisons to George Gervin and Bernard King. We have the unstoppable force of LeBron James and we had Allen Iverson. Dwight Howard can be unguardable. For a brief spell, Michael Redd, Gilbert Arenas and others could light up the court. We have relaxed rules on offense so guys can run free.
So why aren't guying scoring 50-plus more often? You can argue that guys are on more loaded teams so they won't benefit from Wilt in Philly, Kobe from 05-07 or LeBron in his Cavs days being a lone gunner. Defense surely hasn't improved But here's some facts via Basketball-Reference since 2002-03 (highest scoring games since that season)
Carmelo has TWO 50-point games. Jamal Crawford has had more than him.
LeBron has nine. Two over 55 points (Career high is 56)
Dwyane Wade has three 50-point games, all in 2008-09 (Career high is 55)
Kevin Durant just had his first 50-point game on Feb. 12
The fact Andre Miller had his 50-point game in 2010 at 33 is stunning. Speaking of which, only 9 of those performances came after the guy was 30 years old
Iverson had a 51 point game in 2007. He had the third most 50-point games in that span.
Dwight Howard isn't on this list at all (career high is 45 points). So what does it mean? It means that guys may be more athletic and know how to score but it takes a perfect storm and incredible dominance to have a great night in the NBA. Some guys aren't as fundamentally sound so they can't score in a variety of ways. But even if you can impose your will, it takes a lot more than physical talent or offensive gifts to put up 50. Heck, we go nuts when a guy has 40!
Oh yeah, as far as scoring 60? Besides Kobe, only McGrady, Arenas and Iverson have scored 60 in the last 10 years. As for the Black Mamba, he's scored 50 or more points 24 TIMES in the last decade. It's a tribute to Kobe's incredible offensive arsenal and a reason why he's the legendary player he is.
And yet it all reminds you how incredibly difficult it is to score 50. Now imagine somebody being hot enough to score 100! It requires you to make at least 30 shots from all over the court and Kobe made 28 in his historic night.
What Kobe did in January 2006 was incredible in this era. And using that B-Ball ref. link I just posted, it shows you how incredible it really was.
We may see it again one day but I doubt it. I've seen kids score 36 and 39 in a high school game. I witnessed a high school classmate score in the 40's. People went nuts when Jimmer Fredette put up 52 last year. It's a lot of luck and skill and the ability to score from anywhere. That's why Wilt's record won't be passed and that's why we need to always respect this as the greatest offensive performance in NBA history.