NEW YORK, April 28 (AP)--The basketball that Wilt Chamberlain used to score a record 100 points in an NBA game, which was stolen shortly after this feat, proved even more valuable than anyone dreamed: It sold at auction today for $551,844.

That's the most ever paid for a basketball, and one of the highest prices ever for a sports item at auction, according to Leland's auction house. Leland's would not say who bought the stolen ball, but Kerry Ryman, who was 14 when he ran off with it 38 years ago, and the buyer are off the hook legally. The statute of limitations on the theft ran out in 1975.

"He feels so guilty about it," the president of the auction house said. "I told him, 'Who cares?'"

Ryman, now 52, grabbed the ball in Hershey, Pa., on March 2, 1962, after congratulating Chamberlain for his remarkable accomplishment for the Philadelphia Warriors against the New York Knicks. Ryman scaled a fence and outran an arena security guard with his prize.

"He feels so guilty about it," said Josh Evans, Leland's president. "I told him, 'Who cares?' He was caught up in the moment."

Chamberlain, who died last October, told a security guard to let Ryman keep the ball.

At first, Leland's thought the ball would sell for $25,000 to $100,000. But it soon became apparent that range was way too low. The stolen basketball became the hit of the lot, which included more than 700 items. Leland's conducts its auctions by phone, fax, and e-mail.

"It's the publicity," Evans said as six of his employees answered phone calls and checked the Internet messages. "The publicity and the feat. One hundred points! It's a record that never will be broken. It's as if Mark McGwire hit 100 home runs."

Ted Williams' uniform from 1941--the season he batted .406--sold for $120,097. A game-used Lou Gehrig cap went for $75,386. And the ball that Mookie Wilson hit through Bill Buckner's legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, a part of actor Charlie Sheen's collection, fetched $63,945.

Babe Ruth's last will and testament sold for $31,971, and his 1916 World Series award for $62,618. Prices include a 15% buyer's premium.

Evans said the Chamberlain ball is not the most valuable piece of memorabilia. "Michael Jordan's last shot before retiring. That ball is worth $1 million," Evans estimated.

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