I’ve always considered myself a lucky man. I have seen the “greats” play in basketball, baseball, and football. The Dodgers and Lakers, moved to Los Angeles when I was a pre-teen, and then there were the Rams. Living in a major city in the late 1950’s, I was fortunate to have somewhat frequent access, to television broadcasts for all three sports.
Watching Kobe block LeBron’s shots last night caused a ‘flashback’.
Although some might remember the Larry Bird, “Magic” Johnson rivalry, theirs was the second, and the first was even more incredible.
Bill Russell played center for the Boston Celtics. For 13 years, from 1957 to 1969, he led them to 11 world championships, including 8 in a row, between 1959 and 1966.
Russell was 6 feet 9 inches tall, and would have been labeled “on the lean side”. But he was a master of every basketball skill. He rebounded better than anyone in the league, scored when he needed, was a great passer, and was quick on defense.
When the 1959-1960 season began, sportswriters assumed Russell’s reign was over. Entering the league was Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain. He was 7 feet 1 3/8 inches tall. He was as quick as Russell, stronger, and had superior offensive skills.
Veteran Knicks’ guard Carl Braun, didn’t quite see it that way. Braun won a “Gold Medal” in 1956, and entered the world of professional basketball. He believed he had watched Russell enough to know, what “made him tick”.
“This challenge by Chamberlain is going to make him better than ever,” Braun forecast. “He’s got a lot of pride, and no one is going to knock him off that All-Star team without a fight.”
“People say it was the greatest individual rivalry, they’ve ever seen,” Russell said. “I agree with that, but I have to laugh today. I’ll turn on the TV and see the Knicks play the Lakers, and in half the time Patrick [Ewing] isn’t even guarding Shaq [O’Neal], and vice-versa. Let me assure you, that if either Wilt’s or Russ’ coach, had ever told one of them he couldn’t guard the other guy, he would have lost that player forever!”
When Chamberlain was not playing against Russell, he dominated the court, and was the greatest offensive force of his time. When they played each other, neither gave less than 100% for four quarters. Russell was going to be known as a great player, but, thanks to Chamberlain, he rose far above that.
They played against each other 142 times in 10 years. Russell and the Celtics won 85 times while Chamberlain who played with the Warriors, 76ers, and the Lakers, won 57 times.
Statistically, Chamberlain dominated. Chamberlain averaged exactly 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds a game, during those 142 games, the point totals were down a bit due to his late-in-career transformation, from a relentless scoring machine to more well-rounded player. In the early years, Wilt scored 50 or more points, seven times against Russell, including a high of 62 on January 14, 1962. By the time we could start referring to these men as “aging warriors,” the numbers were a bit more back to earth. Wilt’s high game in their final year was 35, and three times, he scored in single figures.
Russell’s totals against Wilt, was 14.5 points and 23.7 rebounds per game. His highest-scoring game against his arch rival, was 37.
But Russell, won 9 championships in those 10 years, Chamberlain but one.
“After I played him for the first time,” Russell said, “I said, ‘Let’s see. He’s four or five inches taller, and 40 or 50 pounds heavier. His vertical leap is at least as good as mine. He can get up and down the floor as well as I can, and he’s smart. The real problem with all this, is that I have to show up!”
They had great supporting casts. Russell played with 7 “Hall of Famers”, Chamberlain, with 6.
Their competition filled the stands and dominated the television ratings.
Columnist-The Guardian Express