Fifty-four years ago this week, on the day before top-ranked Kansas played at Cal, a crowd of 500 curious spectators showed up at Harmon Gym to watch the Jayhawks warm up for practice.

The attraction was sophomore Wilt Chamberlain, who was preparing to play just his fifth varsity game with the Jayhawks. Through the first four, the 7-foot-1 center assembled comic-book numbers: 39.5 points, 22 rebounds and 9.5 blocks per game. In his debut against Northwestern, he had 52 points and 31 rebounds.

Among those who peeked in was Cal coach Pete Newell.

"I only saw him for a couple minutes "... but that was enough for me to believe everything I've heard about him," Newell told the Oakland Tribune at the time. "You only have to see him walk to know he's an athlete.

"After I saw him shoot and move, I had to go out and sit down in a quiet place."

The unbeaten and third-ranked Jayhawks come to town Wednesday for their first game on the Berkeley campus since Chamberlain's appearance.

As good as the current Kansas team is -- and the game at Haas Pavilion is expected to sell out -- the buildup doesn't compare to the fervor Chamberlain's visit generated.

"Man, it was a two- or three-day buzz," recalled Earl Robinson, 74, a junior guard for the Bears that season. "It was electric all day on campus. There were so many people (at the game), they were sitting on the stairs."

Yes, it was a different world -- before major league baseball reached the West Coast, before the NFL devoured the nation's sports consciousness.

In any era, Wilt was larger than life.

"The guy was a phenomenon," said Bob Steiner, who wrote for the student Daily Cal at the time and later served as the school's sports information director. "Bill Russell crept up on the world. Chamberlain was like that from birth."

This was before Newell built Cal into a basketball powerhouse that played in back-to-back NCAA Final Fours and won the 1959 national title.

But if he publicly swooned over Chamberlain's talents, he exuded confidence when talking with his players.

"That's how Pete was," Robinson said. "He would never share those anxieties with us."

Newell also had a plan. The Bears had faced Russell and USF the two previous seasons, so they weren't easily intimidated, even by Chamberlain.

"Basically we were trying to double-team him," said Duane Asplund, Cal's 6-7 senior center. "Mostly I was playing behind him and Don MacIntosh (at 6-5) was doing most of the fronting in hopes we could keep them from throwing him the ball."

It sounded plausible, until Asplund went to midcourt for the jump ball and got his first up-close view of Chamberlain.

"I was looking at his belly button," Asplund recalled. "Russell was strong but not as big. The game was certainly a wrestling match. I was trying to keep him from killing me."

The Bears dominated into the second half, leading by 10 points on two occasions. Kansas never drew even until just nine minutes remained.

Chamberlain didn't score for long stretches, partly because the tandem of Asplund and MacIntosh was so effective screening him away from the offensive boards.

"I remember one play we had him back almost to the free throw line," Asplund said. "The next tip, he grabbed it and dunked it back in."

Ultimately, the Jayhawks prevailed 66-56. Chamberlain was good but didn't overwhelm the Bears. He had 23 points -- the first time a college team held him under 30 -- and 14 rebounds.

One play late in the game tilted the outcome toward the Jayhawks. Chamberlain and MacIntosh collided while going for a rebound, leaving the smaller Cal player unconscious on the floor.

"There was nothing dirty about it," Asplund said.

"He wasn't swinging elbows," Robinson said. "He would just go up with such force."

Asplund recalled asking the officials to stop play as Kansas guard Maurice King was streaking down court with the ball. Robinson gave chase and tried to block his shot but picked up his fifth foul.

"We lost two players on one play," Steiner said.

Things got better for the Bears after facing Chamberlain. They lost only four more times at Harmon Gym over the next four seasons.

"I'm telling you, we had confidence from the very beginning," Robinson said. "They were playing at our house. Anybody who came into that basement at Cal, we had a chance to beat them."

But Wilt got the last word on the day he came to town.

"All I've got to say is that Chamberlain has not been overrated," Newell remarked after the game. "I wouldn't say he yet measures up to Bill Russell, but wait until he gets a little more experience."

Five years later, in just his third NBA season, Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points per game. No one else has come close.

wednesdAY'S game
Kansas at Cal,
8 p.m., CSNCA