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Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain
Bill Russell (left) and Wilt Chamberlain square off in a 1968 game.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Two giants: Russell, Wilt scrapped on court, laughed off it

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
Posted Apr 9 2012 12:24PM

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***

The hair and beard are white, the voice is considerably softer now and it takes a little bit longer to settle into a chair. But just a week past his 78th birthday, a smile practically leaps up and fast breaks across Bill Russell's face at a mention of the name.

"Wilt," he said, "was my friend."

It's not the first word that most would use to describe Chamberlain vs. Russell, the greatest individual rivalry in the history of the NBA, if not all of American sports.

"That's always the first mistake," Russell said. "We were never rivals. We were competitors. A rivalry means there is a victor and a vanquished. In this case, there was never either a victor or a vanquished, just competitors. A lot of times I've heard people tell what they thought they knew. Well, they don't know (spit)."

What the numbers show is a decade of head-to-head battles from 1959 to 1969 during which Chamberlain shattered virtually all of the NBA's scoring and rebounding records while Russell collected championships. Over 10 seasons, they played 142 games against each other with Russell winning 85 and Chamberlain 57. The stats show that in those games, Wilt averaged 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds while Russell averaged 14.5 points and 23.7 rebounds. Chamberlain scored 50 or more points seven times against Russell, including a high of 62. Russell's highest scoring game against Chamberlain was 37. And, of course, in that decade of squaring off, Russell won nine championships to Wilt's one.

"People on the outside want to make snap evaluations, judgments about what makes a player, an athlete, a man based on criteria that is viewed through their own perceptions," Russell said. "What I know is that from the very first time I ever stepped onto a court and had to play against Wilt, I knew that nothing less than my very best would ever be enough.

"The first time we played, I realized he was bigger, stronger, faster, quicker, more athletic than me, so it was going to take some kind of plan just to survive. Later on there was the night that he set the NBA record by getting 55 rebounds against us. As we used to say back then about the Houston police: He was kicking asses and taking names. And you know he did that a lot."

Chamberlain never did it more than during the 1961-62 season when he averaged 50.4 points, 25.7 rebounds and set the all-time single-game scoring record with 100 points on March 2 against the Knicks at Hershey Sports Arena. It was a year when Oscar Robertson -- 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists -- became the only player ever to average a triple-double for an entire season. It also saw Walt Bellamy break into the league by averaging 31.6 points a game, the most ever by any rookie not named Chamberlain.

Yet in the end the Celtics won the fourth of their eight consecutive NBA championships and Russell was named MVP, the third of five times he would be so honored.

"He was such a great competitor," said teammate Tom Heinsohn. "I still think Russell was the greatest player to play the game because of his impact. What he did couldn't be recorded in statistics. He changed the game and he made people change their offense. Other teams actually had a 'Russell offense.' How do you measure a guy not wanting to take a shot against him? It's not a block. It's not a shot attempt. It's not a miss. But that's what was going on. He intimidated the other team and he was the consummate winner.

"Wilt would get his points when we played them. He had the ball on almost every possession trying to score. He was a terrific offensive player. You would try to make him take the shots that you wanted him to take. Instead of the dipper dunks and roll-ins, try to force the fallaway jumpers so if he missed, he was out of the play. Of course, there was his weakness at the free-throw line. Long before there was 'Hack-a'Shaq,' we had 'Whack Wilt.' Wilt was changing the game with his scoring and dunking and above the rim play, no doubt. But we were playing a team game because of Russell.

"When you talk about the great player, it's got to be Russell. Wilt's got the stats. Russell's got the championships. What he gave our team couldn't be quantified. He just destroyed and ran guys out of the league. Neil Johnston was the league's leading scorer when Russell came in as a rookie and drove him right out of the league.

"He totally revolutionized the game. They are still trying to emulate what Russell did today. All of the team concepts right now on defense were formulated out of the idea of what Bill Russell was doing 50 years ago."

The debate has often revolved around whether Russell or Chamberlain had the more complete set of teammates. What if Wilt had played for the Celtics and Russell in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles? Would Wilt have been the one collecting the championship jewelry?

"If Red Auerbach was coaching him, it might have happened," Heinsohn said, "because Red knew how to handle guys. Red knew how to handle Russell."

Russell and Chamberlain had a personal relationship that was vastly different from the public perception. On the court, Russell was always portrayed as the giant-killer, the slayer of the monster named Wilt. But the two big men first met when Chamberlain was in his first year at the University of Kansas and drove to St. Louis on an off-day to meet Russell, already playing for the Celtics.

"He was a polite young man," Russell said. "He just introduced himself and we spent the day together and were friends ever since."

Even during the peak of their on-court duels, Russell and Chamberlain often ate dinner at each other's homes.

"We never talked about the last game or the next game or what might happen tomorrow," Russell said. "We were just a couple of guys who truly enjoyed each other's company and then the next night we'd both go out there and try our best to kick the other guy's ass. We never tried to get into each other's head."

The only one who did that was Auerbach, according to Sam Jones, another Hall of Famer Celtic teammate.

"Red could get in just about anybody's head," Jones said. "I think he was the one who got to Wilt and affected the games we played against him more than anybody in a uniform. He was always sending messages, using the media. Wilt and Russell just did battle and played. I think they really brought out the best in each other.

"From a competition standpoint, it would have been interesting to see what Red could have done with Wilt. Because I think if Wilt would have put it in his mind that he could be the best player ever in NBA -- defensive, assists, help my teammates -- there's no telling how far he could have gone. He could actually do it all."

Of all his contemporaries on those Celtics' teams, it is, perhaps surprisingly, Russell, who champions Chamberlain the most.

"I hear guys say that he couldn't have played in a different time, done the things that he did then today," Russell said. "That's bull(...). If Wilt were playing today, he would be even more dominant than he was then. I don't see a center out there now that could play against him.

"The reason people don't believe that is because Wilt's numbers were so big, they seemed so impossible that they almost don't seem real. So they try to diminish the era and those he played against. People can't comprehend numbers like that, things that he did every night in just about every game. So they try to find a way to dismiss them or devalue them and try to make them not real.

"You talk about a guy that averaged 50 points a game for the whole season. Now a guy averages 29 points or 30 points and he leads the league and everybody says he's the greatest scorer. Well, Wilt was 20 points a night better. How do you compare [with] that?

"When I played against Wilt I used to assess how I was gonna play. He knew that I guarded him different every game. I had five sets, five different ways that I played against him. The main agenda was never to stop him. The agenda was to make him less efficient, so that if he got 40 points, he had to take 40 shots to get it. He was always the first option. So if he's taking 40 shots, then none of the rest of the guys on his team could ever pick up a rhythm. So their shooting percentages would go down. Because when you're shooting once every five minutes, there's no way you can consistently be a good shooter. You can't maintain any kind of rhythm. So I would never try to stop him and he knew that.

"I had different ways of guarding him and the key was never trying to block his shots. For example, he had a fadeaway jump shot and he liked to take it from a particular spot left of the key. So I would try to move him one step to the left or one step to the right, so they he's shooting at a different angle. His angle changes without really looking like it's changing and so the shot would hit the rim and go off. That's making him less efficient. But if I were to block all those shots, he was also the smartest player I ever played against -- not even close -- and he would constantly be adjusting. That's why I had to have five different ways of guarding him.

"We had a stretch one time where he made like 10 in a row on bank shots. I said to myself, 'There's something wrong with this picture.' What he had done was get into his crouch and rub me off and throw my timing off. So he's getting his shot off with no obstruction. So I figured it out and the next time he went to rub me off, I turned my body so that when he tried to rub me off he'd miss. So we would go through this dance, back and forth, me and him, action and reaction. When he's counting on rubbing me off and there's no contact that throws him off. It's those things we were always doing to each other.

"On the night I heard he scored 100 points, I just said, 'I'm sure glad he wasn't playing against us.' Because he was always capable. It wasn't a complete surprise. It wasn't like he shocked everybody in the league by doing that. A lot of us always thought that it could happen."

The pair of giants did not speak for two decades after Russell criticized Chamberlain for taking himself out in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals -- the last game of Russell's career -- with an ankle injury. Russell eventually apologized to Wilt privately and the two then remained close. Chamberlain died on Oct. 12, 1999.

"I was devastated," Russell said. "I went to the memorial service and one of his nephews said to me, 'Mr. Russell, this is something you might want to know. Yesterday I cleared off my uncle's desk. He had one of those things, a spike, where you keep notes or reminders. He had a stack of phone calls he was going to make that day, the day that he died, and you were second on the list of guys he was going to call that day.' That made me smile."

Who knows what was on the mind of the one big man who wanted to phone the other to whom he was inextricably linked? Something big? Something small? Something serious? Something silly?

"We talked a lot in our post-career lives," Russell said. "One of my favorites is one time he called me up and he was so mad. I said, 'What's the matter, man?' He said Sports Illustrated did a story and they asked the question: 'Was Dennis Rodman the best rebounder ever?'

"Wilt was beside himself. He said, 'I averaged more in a half than he did in a whole damned game and they're gonna tell a story that he was the best?

"Well, Wilt and I are the only two guys that had over 20,000 rebounds and nobody else is even close. So I said, 'Yeah, Wilt. It's obvious you were the best rebounder ever, because I averaged 22.5 for 13 years. You averaged 22.9 for 14 years. So that makes you the best rebounder.'

"He says, 'Well, I disagree with you.' I asked how he could, and Wilt said, 'In the playoffs, you averaged 24.9 a game and I was 24.5, and that's where the toughest rebounds are, because you're always playing against the better teams. That makes you the best rebounder.'

"So you know what we decided between the two of us? Was Dennis Rodman the best rebounder ever? Man, that ain't worthy of discussion. And we had a great laugh.

"That was our friendship. I miss it."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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