The headline in Lincoln’s Sunday Journal and Star, across the top of the front page of the sports section on Feb. 9, 1958, read: “Wilt Ties Nebraska, 46-46; KU Wins 102-46.”
Omaha’s Sunday World-Herald that day relegated the story to the bottom of the front page of the sports section, with the headline: “Wilt & Company Annihilate Husker Cagers by 102-46.” The story was only seven paragraphs long, filed by the Associated Press.
Nebraska track and field got better play, as did Creighton basketball and a story about the scheduling of the state’s first high school all-star football game in the late summer of 1959.
“Wilt” was Wilt Chamberlain, Kansas’ 7-foot-1 junior center. Everyone knew him by “Wilt,” the way everyone knows LeBron. You could also call Wilt “the Stilt,” or “the Big Dipper,” or just “the Dipper.” He was that dominating – on a cosmic level, though that wasn’t the reason for the reference.
His first love had been football. He was a Golden Gloves boxer as a youngster in Philadelphia. He also competed on the Kansas track and field team; he was a high jumper and a shot putter.
Well over 100 colleges recruited him – 200 according to his autobiography.
Coach Jerry Bush’s Huskers had trouble containing Wilt. He had scored a combined 56 points in two Jayhawk victories against Nebraska in 1957 – and freshmen weren’t eligible for varsity competition, so the Huskers didn’t have to deal with him in 1956, even though they also lost to Kansas twice.
In the second victory in 1957, 87-60 at Lawrence, the Jayhawks had finished with a conference-record 77 rebounds. Coach Dick Harp’s team had gone on to finish second in the NCAA Tournament at Kansas City, losing to undefeated North Carolina 54-53 in three overtimes.
A couple of starters from that Kansas team were gone. But Wilt, a consensus All-American, was still there, a year older and even more dominant. Such was the context for the 1958 games.
Wilt’s 46 points against Nebraska at Lawrence were a conference record. He made 14 field goals and 18-of-23 free throws. The Huskers were whistled for 33 fouls, Kansas for 22.
When the Jayhawks had come to Lincoln his sophomore season, tickets were sold out well in advance. So Lincoln’s KOLN arranged for a telecast. General admission seating at the Coliseum was first-come-first-serve, and fans began lining up at 3:30 p.m. The doors were scheduled to open at 5:15, with an 8:05 tip. The game was preceded by a Husker freshman game against a pick-up team.
A crowd reported at 9,000 was packed into the building. When Wilt left the game for the first time with 1:12 remaining, fans began leaving. They had come to see him.
Interest in the 1958 game in Lincoln was high, but not to the degree of the 1957 game, maybe because of what had happened two weeks before in Lawrence.
KOLN again televised the game, and more than 8,000 were on-hand.
Kansas was 12-3 and ranked No. 4 nationally, having just lost to rival Kansas State. Nebraska was on a two-game winning streak, improving its record to 8-12.
The Huskers surrounded Wilt defensively, with 6-foot-6 sophomore Bob Harry assigned to him, and led by as many as nine points. The score was 27-21 at halftime, Nebraska, which still led by six with 6:53 remaining, 39-33. Thirteen seconds later, the Huskers’ captain, guard Gary Reimers, had to be helped from the court with what was described in the newspapers as a severe leg cramp.
Jim Kubacki, a 5-foot-9 senior guard, had been on the Nebraska bench in street clothes because of a knee injury. But when Reimers was helped off, Kubacki persuaded Bush to let him suit up. Kubacki hobbled to the locker room and returned about 3 minutes on the game clock later.
With 2:46 remaining, he entered the game.
With 1:34 remaining, Wilt’s basket tied the score at 41.
Nebraska held the ball for a final shot. With 2 seconds remaining, Kubacki hit a 15-foot one-hander for a 43-41 victory, which the Sunday World-Herald’s Ralph Stewart called the “greatest upset of the season – in the Big Eight or throughout the nation.”
“Henceforth, where ever Cornhuskers gather, they’ll drink a toast to the little man who beat the big man,” the Lincoln Star’s Don Bryant wrote.
Ten days later, also at the Coliseum, Nebraska upset Kansas State 55-48.
The Wildcats, led by All-American – and Omaha Tech grad – Bob Boozer, were ranked No. 1 in the AP poll, which was released the next morning. “This may sound funny, but the win over Kansas was still the biggest one,” Bush was quoted afterward.
Wilt was the primary reason.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.