Wilt's 100-point game was the big bonus for ref who was paid $40

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Fans and teammates surround Wilt Chamberlain to congratulate him after his 100-point game in 1962. (AP file photo)

On the night Pete D'Ambrosio became a footnote to sports history, he made $40.

But, as the 92-year-old West Philadelphia native has come to realize over the subsequent 50 years, that one night's work in Hershey earned him a priceless memory.

"It just seemed like it was going to be a night like any other," D'Ambrosio recalled. "The last thing I expected was history."

The night was March 2, 1962, a date now recalled by sports fans with an almost mystical reverence.

The Philadelphia Warriors' Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a Hershey Arena victory over the New York Knicks that late-winter Friday, a perfectly rounded accomplishment that a half-century later seems no less astonishing or approachable.

D'Ambrosio and Reading's Willie Smith were the referees, their names at the bottom of that memorable box score linking them forever to perhaps the most noteworthy game in basketball history.

To mark the forthcoming 50th anniversary, the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association paid tribute to D'Ambrosio and others associated with that game during its annual Cherry Hill banquet Monday night.

In addition to D'Ambrosio, the group honored Bill Campbell, whose radio broadcast remains the only electronic record of the night; Joe Ruklick, the Warriors reserve who with 46 seconds remaining assisted on the basket that gave Chamberlain his 100 points; and Harvey Pollack, the longtime basketball statistics guru who was the Warriors' harried public-relations man that night.

Chamberlain died in 1999.

"I remember Willie and I sitting in the dressing room after that game and talking about how amazing it was that Wilt got that many points," D'Ambrosio said. "It was in the papers and the news the next day, but nobody really made a big deal out of it the way they would now."

For D'Ambrosio, it would turn out to be one of the last games in his eight-year career as an NBA official. A minor-league umpire and occasional high-school referee, he got the job in 1954 through Jocko Collins, a friend from Philadelphia who was the league's director of officiating.

"I enjoyed it. I probably worked 40 to 50 games a season," he said. "But I quit after '62 because I thought I was going to be hired by the National League [as a full-time umpire]. I went to Florida for spring training, but I guess they didn't like the way I worked a game because I went back to the International League that spring."

That March 2, D'Ambrosio left his West Philadelphia home in mid-afternoon and drove to Reading, where he picked up Smith. The two men went on to Hershey, where the second-place Warriors were hosting the woeful Knicks in one of the home-away-from-home games that were then an NBA staple.

"It was an easy job back then," D'Ambrosio said. "You didn't have to travel as far. You could drive to a lot of places. Of course, you didn't make the money that these fellows today do."

More experienced referees, he said, earned $50 or $60 a game in the early '60s. All had other jobs in the spring and summer, some even a second one during basketball season. According to a website called TheRichest.org, an NBA official now earns between $100,000 and $300,000 a year.

Coincidentally, D'Ambrosio had an earlier brush with NBA scoring history the season before that game in Hershey. On Nov. 15, 1960, in New York, he worked the second game of a Madison Square Garden doubleheader in which the Lakers' Elgin Baylor scored a then-record 71 points.

He had officiated games involving Chamberlain before, dating back to when the 7-foot-1 superstar was at Overbrook High.

"I got to know Wilt pretty well," he said. "He was easy to referee for."

So when the oft-fouled "Dipper" began making nearly all of his free throws early in the Knicks game, D'Ambrosio figured he might witness another 70- or even 80-point performance.

"Wilt was a bad free-throw shooter," he said, "but he started that game by hitting most of them [he made 28 of 32]. I thought to myself, 'Yes, he could have a big night.' But 100 points? Who could have imagined that?"

When players and coaches for both teams realized that Chamberlain, who averaged more than 50 points a game that season, could reach 100, the normal ebb and flow of an NBA game deteriorated into an official's nightmare.

The Warriors began fouling New York players immediately so they could get the ball back and feed their unstoppable center. The Knicks, meanwhile, not wanting to be known as the team that allowed one player 100 points, tried to foul Chamberlain's teammates before they could get the ball to him.

To counter that strategy, Warriors coach Frank McGuire had his players inbound the ball to Chamberlain in the backcourt, the lanky center then proceeding to dribble it up the court.

"Things really got to be a little bit chaotic there at the end," D'Ambrosio said. "It was a problem. I remember that Richie Guerin [New York's high scorer] was quite upset. The last four minutes probably took about a half-hour to complete."

After Chamberlain converted Ruklick's pass into the dunk that made history, the game's final seconds were a blur for D'Ambrosio.

"I remember everyone in the crowd [4,124 attended] running onto the floor when Wilt got to 100 points," he said. "I don't recall what happened next, but I know that Willie and me were back in our dressing room before they got the floor cleared."

D'Ambrosio umpired for decades more before retiring. By then he had moved to Yeadon. After his wife of 52 years died in 2005, he relocated to the Lansdowne apartment where he still resides.

"I was lucky to have been there that night," he said. "A lot of NBA referees worked years longer than I did but are mostly forgotten. Those 100 points have made people remember me for 50 years."

For complete coverage of Wilt's 100-point game, click here.

 


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, Giving 'Em Fitz, at www.philly.com/fitz.