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The NBA’s Tribute To Minimalist Art

10:54 AM EST on January 28, 2024

Joel Embiid with 70 paper; Luka Doncic with 73 paper
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images; Luka Doncic Twitter account

We're not sure if this remains an ongoing conspiracy theory, but there are still societal misfits, fact-deniers, and just perpetually avoidable humans who still claim that Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game a half-century ago is a hoax—based on the dubious notion that because there was almost no video of the game (YouTube has snippets of the radio broadcast attached to a video of a 73-point game against the same opponent, which kind of doesn't count) and because 100 points is too round a number to be real, therefore it didn't happen. Besides, this corny picture has to be complete bullshit, right?

But art is what you say it is, and very few people have used plain white paper and a ballpoint pen to create a more lasting visual icon than Philadelphia Warriors public relations director Harvey Pollock. Pollock watched Chamberlain's century that March night in Hershey, and knew there was no film of the game, but he wanted something that the next morning's newspapers could latch onto. So, in a panic-fueled moment of inspiration, he grabbed the closest thing to proof he could find and voila! History, on the fly.

We bring this up only because the icon is making a comeback. Twice last week, Monday in Philadelphia and four nights later in Dallas, the motif was resurrected with varying degrees of success but also with a level of respect for Chamberlain, and by extension Pollock, that does credit to all involved.

The Monday event was Joel Embiid's 70-point game against San Antonio, the highest total by any Philadelphia player since Chamberlain, and as you can see Embiid could not be happier. In fairness, though, he might be unhappy with the slapdash artwork, a hastily scribbled "70" that isn't even written more than once for easier viewing.

If they were still alive, Pollock would be outraged by the lack of panache, while Chamberlain probably would be too busy trying to bed a woman to keep up his own average, as he claimed in his 1992 autobiography to have slept with 20,000 partners. Sadly, he never had the PR sense to write "20,000" on a pillow case, let alone pose for a photographer who might have been in the room at the time to capture the moment. As a result, few people believe he ever hit the 20,000-partner mark he claimed in his book, a stat he kind of almost walked back with a less beehive-haired Conan O'Brien in 1997.

Friday, though, it happened again, with Dallas' Luka Doncic dropping 73 on the nearly as hapless Atlanta Hawks and striking the pose with a more bemused look. To their credit, the Mavericks made a slightly more earnest effort, bothering to send an intern to chase down a working Sharpie because it's not art if you can't see it.

But the pen-and-paper schtick can only work on the rarest occasions, like Jack Taylor of Grinnell's 138-point game against Faith Baptist Bible in 2012 or J.J. Culver of Wayland Baptist seven years later. There is no indication that Taylor posed the same way a year later when he dropped 109 on Crossroads College, maybe because it might have seemed immodest or worse, kitschy. And somewhere Frank Selvy, who scored 100 in a 1954 game for Furman, is berating his own sports information director for not thinking of the idea first.

Since then, though, we clearly re-established the baseline for the pose, lowering it from 100 to 80 through Kobe Bryant's 81 in 2006, and down further with Devin Booker's 70 in 2017, and the 71-point games last season by Donovan Mitchell and Damian Lillard.

Seventy now seems to be the minimum number allowed (we are excluding the Northwestern player who struck a cheeky pose after the first point of his career) and at least three players—Elgin Baylor (71 in 1960), David Thompson (73 in 1978), and David Robinson (71 in 1994)—didn't bother at all. And if anyone needs proof that a paltry 60-pointer doesn't get you a staged photo with outdated office supplies, Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns went for 62 the same night as Embiid but didn't pose for anything because (a) Minnesota lost the game, (b) Timberwolves coach Chris Finch ripped the team publicly after the game, and (c) Towns was benched for the last three minutes for poor play. Chamberlain himself went for 78, 72, and 70 in losing efforts and didn't strike the pose either. Booker, on the other hand, did even though Phoenix lost the game to Boston, but since the Suns finished 24-58 that year, a 10-point loss was the equivalent of a seven-point win for a normal team.

But this isn't about basketball. It's about art, and whether the next 70-point scorer will want something with greater production value or prefer the raw, improvisational beauty of that cold night in a half-empty barn in "the sweetest place on Earth." If art is truth, then even different-colored ink is a cheat of sorts, and a proper homage uses the materials of the time. So here's to Harvey Pollock, Wilt Chamberlain, and something that has stood the test of time even when so many other moments in sports fade from our collective memory 20 minutes after they happen, if they last that long at all.

Correction (12:32 p.m. ET): The post has been updated with the correction name for the Timberwolves head coach. It's Chris Finch.

Editor's Note (12:41 p.m. ET): The following is being added to the correction at the writer's request, "The company deeply regrets hiring the author, again." His editor hopes this makes the writer something resembling happy.

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