Crime does pay for cheeky basketball thief

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The Independent Online

In 1962, 14-year-old Kerry Ryman sneaked onto the floor just after Wilt Chamberlain's legendary 100-point National Basketball Association game with one thing on his mind: "How can I get that ball?"

Amid all the excitement, gaining possession wasn't hard for the lanky teenager. He easily weaved through the players and fans, stole the ball and made a fast break, outrunning a security guard.

Thirty-eight years later, Ryman is putting the basketball up for auction.

"It has been a burden in some ways," Ryman, now 52, said from his home in Annville, near Hershey, where the famous game was played. "Every anniversary of Wilt's death and every anniversary of the game, people call wanting pictures and interviews. I'm tired of it. I want to put it to rest."

On Thursday, bidding on the ball will start at $25,000 at Leland's auction house in New York.

Chamberlain, the mighty 7-foot-1 centre who died in October at 63, scored 100 points playing for the Philadelphia Warriors in a game against the New York Knicks. No one has ever come close to breaking the record.

Owning the ball, however, has brought Ryman loads of criticism over the years.

"It's a tragedy that it has been hidden away all these years," said Chuck Forester of Forester Sports Collectibles in Los Angeles. "It's one of the few artifacts in sports history. You've got the Babe's bat, Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball and then I would say you've got Wilt's ball."

Collectors and fans are irritated Wilt's ball was never lent to a museum to be displayed for Chamberlain fans. They say the ball should have been put on a podium, encased in glass, under soft white lights.

Instead, it has sat in a plastic bag in the corner of a closet. Ryman and his friends even played basketball with it for several years.

"This was a time when kids were buying bubble gum and pinning Babe Ruth's card onto the spokes of their bicycle to make a popping noise," Ryman said. "We wanted the ball so we could play with it. We didn't know the value. Since then, it has sat in my closet."

Sports memorabilia collectors are particularly horrified that the ball remained in Ryman's possession, especially since he admitted stealing it.

"It's pretty shady that he would be allowed to keep such a valuable item all of this time," said New York sports memorabilia auctioneer Jesse Hannah. "If I stole $25,000 from you and the police didn't get it back, you would be pretty darn angry about it. Why is this any different?"

But police did have their chance to reclaim the ball back in 1962.

Gabe Basti, who was working as an arena security officer that night, said the sports legend didn't want it back.

"I chased the kid over a fence and through the park but never caught up with him," Basti said. "But we knew it was Kerry, and we knew where he lived. We could have gone to his house and gotten the ball back. But (Chamberlain) didn't want it. He said, 'Let the kid have it."'

In any case, the statute of limitations - time alloted for charging someone with a crime - ran out in 1975.

Howard Schwartz, owner of Grandstand Sports and Memorabilia Inc. in New York, said there is no telling what the ball will sell for.

"There is a big market for baseball items, but basketballs have never sold well," Schwartz said. "I could see it going fould go for $100,000. If it does do well, this could really open up the market for historic basketballs."

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