The Untouchables is a 10-part series spotlighting college basketball's most unbreakable records. Up next is No. 4: Bill Chambers' 51 rebounds in a single game.
For an achievement that has only grown more inconceivable as time has passed, William & Mary center Bill Chambers' 51-rebound effort initially inspired surprisingly little fanfare.
"It wasn't a big deal at the time," Chambers recalled recently. "When the game was over, nothing was said. It wasn't until later in the school year after the season was over that I found out I had the record."
What began as a record that went virtually unnoticed has since garnered more attention for going unchallenged for 59 years and emerging as one of college basketball's most unassailable marks. No player since 1964 has even come within 15 of Chambers' record and Marshall forward Charlie Stack's 43-rebound game in 1954 is still the closest anyone has gotten to the mark.
The biggest reason Chambers' record is safe for the foreseeable future is that more accurate shooting and slower-paced offenses have combined to make superhuman rebounding totals more rare.
From 1951 to 1955, Division I teams averaged 69.1 field goal attempts per game and shot 34.8 percent from the field. That's almost 14 less shot attempts per game than teams averaged between 2007 and 2011 and more than a nine percent gap in shooting percentage.
"My friends make comments nowadays when someone has 18 or 19 rebounds in a game," Chambers said. "They'll laugh and say, 'That's no big deal for you.' They like to kid me about how poorly we must have shot the ball."
Maybe the most amazing aspect of Chambers' emergence as one of the top rebounders of his era is that the men he boxed out often towered over him.
Despite standing only 6-foot-4, Chambers honed his rebounding ability in high school by manning the paint for an E.C. Glass High team that went 22-0 in 1949 and won the Virginia state championship. William & Mary coach Boydson Baird recruited Chambers as a center even though the Lynchburg native was anywhere from three-to-five inches shorter than other players at his position.
The way Chambers compensated for his height deficit was with his leaping ability, wingspan and instinct for knowing exactly how an errant shot would carom off the rim.
Six-foot-5 William & Mary forward Jerry Harris was an inch taller than Chambers, yet he recalls Chambers' fingers stretching five inches above his own when the two teammates stood back-to-back with their arms outstretched. And fellow teammate John Mahoney recalls seeing Chambers stand flat-footed under the basket and leap up and dunk the ball, something few players his size could duplicate at the time.
"They say white men can't jump? He could jump," Mahoney said. "He had a nose for the ball and great leaping ability. Everything that came off those boards, he gobbled up."
Chambers averaged an impressive 21.8 rebounds per game as a senior during the 1952-53 season, but he managed to eclipse that by halftime against Virginia on Valentine's Day in part because of the breakneck pace of the game. Both the Tribe and the Cavaliers were fast-breaking teams who combined for 189 points that night but also missed more shots than they made.
When William & Mary players left the court at halftime, the scorekeeper intercepted them on the way to the locker room.
"He told us, 'You know Chambers has 26 rebounds already?'" Harris recalled. "So we were aware of it after the first half. It was in the back of our mind, but it wasn't the object of the game."
Now retired and living in Alabama, Chambers admits he's proud to still be in the record books. His 51-rebound night may have received scant attention in 1953, but reporters now call Chambers sporadically nearly six decades later to relive the feat.
"I had a built-in radar in my head so that when the ball left a player's hands, I could tell whether it was going to be short or long, bounce this way or bounce that way," Chambers said. "I guess I had a little bit of a gift."
On Valentines day in 1953, Chambers took full advantage of that gift, posting a record that won't soon be broken.
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