BY JEFF FALK
It’s funny the things that can jog our memories – sights, sounds, smells. But perhaps the most powerful trigger are anniversaries.
Lebanon resident Kerry Ryman has vivid memories of March 2nd, 1962, and most of them are fond ones.
On that day, nearly 50 years ago, Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors established an NBA record that will never be approached, much less surpassed. At the old Hershey Sports Arena, known later locally as Hersheypark Arena, Chamberlain poured in a difficult-to-fathom 100 points in a 169-147 victory over New York’s Knicks.
Ryman, a native of Hershey and then a mischevious 14-year-old youth, ran onto the floor when Chamberlain’s 100th point went through the hoop, grabbed the ball amidst the ensuing mayhem and ran out the nearest exit.
“It doesn’t feel like 50 years. It seems like yesterday,” said Ryman. “That’s one of the things for me. It’s hard to remember yesterday or the day before. But I can remember 40 or 50 years ago, and it seems like yesterday. I’m having trouble with my short-term memory.”
Last month, Ryman and two other local residents who were there on that historic day were interviewed by an NBA TV crew for a television special that will air soon. The feature will appear nationally on NBA TV – locally on Comcast Channel 273 – on Friday at 7 p.m. – the 50th anniversary of Chamberlain’s milestone.
“What they did was the real deal,” said Ryman of the NBA. “They spent a whole lot of money on this thing. I think it’s going to be a big deal, bigger than I (originally) thought. They moved us around the Arena. They wanted to know when I took the ball, where I exited, where I went.
“They did a fine job,” Ryman added. “I’m anxious to see how it comes out on TV.
“It was like nothing had changed. That was the greatest part for me. I spent a lot of time in that arena. On Saturday night, all of us went to the hockey games. And after the game, we skated on the ice. All that stuff is so important to me.”
A private man, a simple man, a hard-working man, Ryman isn’t proud of everything he did that night 50 years ago. So it took a little coaxing by his family to relive that moment in NBA history.
“I said no orignally. ‘This isn’t going to happen’,” said Ryman, 64. “I’m finished with this basketball. But I sat down with my daughter. She said, ‘Look, you’ve got three grandchildren. This is the 50th anniversary, you owe it to your grandchildren.’
“She was right, and that’s why I did it,” Ryman continued. “I did it for the NBA. I did it for my grandkids. And I did it for Wilt Chamberlain. It’s something that will never happen again.”
Chamberlain, who averaged over 50 points and 25 rebounds an outing that season, got his hundred by making 36 of his 63 field-goal attempts, 27 of his 38 free-throw attempts and by playing all 48 minutes. The 100 broke the NBA record for points in a game of 78 that Chamberlain had established earlier that season.
The Warriors played a couple of games in Hershey each season in an attempt to broaden their fan base. Ryman was one of 4,124 spectators on hand that rainy night.
“There was certainly no motivation for me, being 14, to take the ball,” said Ryman, who lived on Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, literally a few hunderd yards from ‘The Arena’. “It was just there and I took it. That was part of the Hershey Sports Arena.
“I took the ball. It happened,” said Ryman. “When the ball sold for over half a million dollars later the statistician said it never happened. It took them 15 minutes to find another ball. And Wilt got everyone to sign it, but it never surfaced. For Wilt, that was good enough for him.
“There were 48 seconds to go when I took the ball. By the time the game ended, I was home.”
With the historic ball in his hands, Ryman didn’t store it away for safe-keeping. Instead he did what any sports-minded teenaged boy would do, he played pick-up basketball with it, on macadam and cement surfaces.
And again, and again, and again. After awhile, the ball became worn and Ryman threw it in a closet, where it stayed for over 20 years.
“Yeah, in a way I do have regrets,” said Ryman. “But in another way I don’t. Back in those days you could do those things as a kid. The ball was never an issue as I was growing up.
“As I grew up, I realized I should’ve never taken the ball,” continued Ryman. “Would I do it over again? That’s a good question. I’d say 50-50 or 60-40 that I would’ve did it.”
Chamberlain died in 1999, and his death moved Ryman to try to sell the ball. Ryman claimed that it only sold for $70,000 or $80,000 in auction in New York, and that he only received a portion of the proceeds.
“I worked with this guy who just kept after me, after me and after me,” said Ryman. “He said, ‘I’m telling you it’s worth a lot of money.’ He’s the one who took it to a couple of auction houses. That was about six months after Wilt died.
“I was relieved and glad that ball didn’t sell for half a million dollars,” said Ryman. “It sold for something like 70 or $80,000. Till I paid the taxes, there wasn’t hardly anything left, and rightfully so. The rumor I heard was that Spike Lee bought the ball. But I have no clue as to whoever ended up with it.
“I would say I look back on it fondly. There were moments that it did cause problems for me. But it was OK.”
Before the ball was sold, Ryman was interviewed in New York by veteran newscaster Tom Brokaw. Brokaw wanted to know if the story that had now grown to mythic proportions was true.
“He asked me, ‘Is this the ball Wilt scored his 100 points with?'” said Ryman. “And I said, ‘Yes. But I probably scored 100,000 points with it.”