Until “Linsanity,” did you know that there was a National Basketball Association record for the most points scored in a player’s first five career starts?
If you didn’t, join the crowd. That’s the kind of record that is buried in the statistical weeds. Until someone like Jeremy Lin, the latest New York Knicks phenom, comes along, such records and “firsts” are so esoteric as to be invisible.
By contrast, there are iconic records that fans can recite in their sleep. One of the greatest of these – Wilt Chamberlain‘s 100-point game – celebrates its golden anniversary Friday (March 2).
Wilt’s mega scoring outburst is right up there with Joe DiMaggio‘s 56-game hitting streak when it comes to its presumed unbreakability.
While impressive, Lin’s five-game, 136-point run, which broke Shaquille O’Neal‘s 20-year-old record of 129 points, doesn’t feel nearly as invincible. And certainly it’s not as appealingly simple as the memorable round number Wilt attained in a single game.
The golden anniversary of Chamberlain’s 100-point effort, therefore, seems the perfect opportunity to examine 10 NBA firsts.
That's right, all those reports you may have read about Jeremy Lin being the NBA's first Asian-American player were mistaken. Wat Misaka earned that distinction long, long ago, in 1947, when he played three games for the Knicks before being cut by the same team that now employs Lin. Misaka, a Japanese-American, grew up in Ogden, Utah, when wartime Japanese internment camps existed in the Western US.
Like Lin, he was a clever playmaking guard, but a much shorter one at only 5 ft. 7 in. (Lin is 6 ft. 3 in.). That, Misaka thinks, may have been a factor in why the Knicks cut him. In college, however, he enjoyed a great run with the Utes, who won the 1944 NCAA championship by beating Dartmouth in overtime. In 1947 he was a mainstay on the team that won the NIT tournament in New York, which may have been the most coveted title in college basketball at the time. Utah defeated Kentucky in that championship game. Misaka, a retired engineer, now lives in Bountiful, Utah, and watches Lin's career with great interest.
Although everyone thinks of the Boston Celtics' eight straight championships, which began in 1959, the Minneapolis Lakers, with centre George Mikan, the game's first dominant big man, were the NBA's first repeat winners in 1949 and 1950, and they did themselves one better with a three-peat run from 1952 to 1954. Mikan not only was big and strong at 6 ft. 10. in., he was far more coordinated than most players his size, and was known for his ability to make hook shots with either hand. His effectiveness near the basket led to several rule changes. In college, at DePaul, he swatted away so many shots from the rim that goaltending was outlawed. In the NBA, the lane was widened from 6 feet to 12 feet to prevent in from camping under the basket. Also, because some teams resorted to stalling in trying to compete against the Lakers, the league adopted the 24-second shot clock.
20 years before Boston's Bill Russell led to the Celtics to back-to-back championships as a player-coach, Buddy Jeannette of the Baltimore Bullets both played for and coached the team to the 1948 championship of the Basketball Association of America, as the NBA was known in an earlier incarnation. Jeannette was an all-star guard. Just how Jeannette, Russell, and any of the 38 other players who held both jobs simultaneously managed to do it is a good question -- especially given the need to concentrate on one's own assignments while also calling timeouts, making substitutions, and plotting strategic moves. Boston centre Dave Cowens was the league's last player-coach during the 1978-79 season. The league prohibited hiring player coaches beginning in 1984 so that teams couldn't work around the salary cap.
The three-point shooting arc, an innovation of the old American Basketball Association, was adopted by the NBA beginning with the 1979-80 season. The first NBA player to benefit from its introduction was guard Chris Ford of the Celtics, who came as close to any modern player to shooting an old-fashioned set shot. In a game at the Boston Garden on Oct. 12, 1979, Ford is credited with sinking the first three-pointer behind the 23 ft. 9 in. arc. The league shortened the distance to 22 feet for three seasons before returning it to the original distance in 1997.
Magic Johnson stormed into the NBA after leading Michigan State to the 1979 NCAA championship in a celebrated college showdown with Larry Bird's undefeated Indiana State Sycamores. He was an immediate superstar with the Los Angeles Lakers, and proved his ultimate value in the NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. When LA centre Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went down with an injury, Magic was asked to player centre in Game 6. The move played to his incredible versatility, as he turned in possibly the best all-around performance of his career. Normally a 6 ft. 9 in. point guard, he wound up playing all five positions at various times, scoring 42 points, grabbing 15 rebounds, and dishing out seven assists as the Lakers clinched the series playing in Philadelphia.
As a 6 ft. 1 in. playmaking guard during 10 seasons in the NBA, Scott Skiles bounced around quite a bit, playing for five different teams. He was a feisty gamer who never achieved all-star status, but for one game played on Dec. 30, 1990, no one has ever been better at distributing the ball. That night, for the Orlando Magic, he collected 30 assists, a feat that has never been accomplished since. For the season, he averaged 8.4 assists per game and 17.2 points, figures that helped him capture the NBA's Most Improved Player award. A former Indiana high school star, today he coaches the Milwaukee Bucks.
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