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The Great Rivalries: Russell vs. Wilt; Bird vs. MagicBy Bob Ryan
Bill Russell terrorized the NBA for three seasons. No one had ever seen anything quite like him.
Then came Wilt Chamberlain.
Bigger by at least three inches, stronger, arguably just as quick, and in possession of the greatest offensive skills from the center position the basketball world has yet seen, Chamberlain loomed as a major threat to Russell's supremacy. On the eve of the 1959-60 NBA season, many people automatically assumed that the Russell Era was over, that the next dozen years or so would belong exclusively to Wilt Chamberlain.
Carl Braun was not one of those people. The veteran Knicks guard had played against each of the pivot greats during the exhibition season, and he figured he knew what made Bill Russell tick after watching him play from the moment he entered the NBA, fresh from winning an Olympic gold medal, in December 1956.
"This challenge by Chamberlain is going to make [Russell] better than ever," Braun forecast. "He's got a lot of pride, and nobody is going to knock him off that All-Star team without a fight."
Red Auerbach couldn't have said it better. Nor could Bill Russell, of course. You want to talk about an A-1 prophecy, start with this one: The Bill Russell reign of terror was only beginning.
But so was the greatest individual subplot in American team sports history. For Wilt Chamberlain was every bit as gifted as his advocates believed. He would rewrite the NBA record book many times over. He would become the greatest individual force in the sport's history. And he would prod Bill Russell into playing some of his very best basketball. Absent Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell would have been great. But because of Wilt Chamberlain's terrifying presence, Bill Russell became, as the old Army ad said, all that he could be.
"People say it was the greatest individual rivalry they've ever seen," Russell says. "I agree with that. I have to laugh today. I'll turn on the TV and see the Knicks play the Lakers, and 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!"
It was the great man-to-man confrontation of the sixties, and, as you will see, unquestionably the greatest individual rivalry in NBA history. But there was one other that certainly qualifies as an easy number two. More than a decade later, we would be treated to the other great meeting of basketball deities—Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson.
Bird and Magic. Unlike Russell and Chamberlain, their competition began in college. Michigan State's triumph over Bird's 33-0 Indiana State team in 1979 remains the highest-rated NCAA Championship Game of all time.
They were rivals caught up in a larger focus: namely, Boston versus L.A., both as teams and as cities. They played at a time when the NBA was firmly established and was gaining popularity, particularly on national television. They had similar skills, with a great love for passing, but Bird was a forward and Magic was a guard, and as such, they seldom guarded each other. Their matchup was more of a one-upsmanship thing, but it was no less passionate than the great Russell and Chamberlain meetings that had enthralled basketball fans in earlier times.
"About the only time we ever guarded each other was on a switch," Bird explains. "He'd be on me, and I'd say, "'Hey, I got a little one.'"
"Always," Magic confirms. "He'd say, 'Bring it here. I've got this little one on me.'"
But by the time Bird and Magic came along, the NBA was a far different place from the days of Russell and Wilt. As much as people want to rhapsodize about the rivalry, because the league had grown in size, the two only played against each other 37 times, with Magic and the Lakers holding a 22-15 edge over Bird and the Celtics.
Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain went at each other—are you ready?—142 times during the 10 years of their rivalry. Russell's Celtics won 85 while Wilt, who was with the Warriors, 76ers and Lakers during that period, was on the winning side 57 times. And that average of more than 14 meetings a year was only during the regular season and playoffs. They also played in many exhibitions against each other.
Now that, friends, is a rivalry.
Bird and Magic had their exhibition battles, too, since it was in the best business interests of both teams as well as the league to showcase these players and to promote this rivalry as much as possible. There was never any doubt where the great players themselves stood.
None of this "just another game" stuff for either of them. They were acutely aware of each other's movements.
"When the new schedule would come out each year," Magic says, "I'd grab it and circle the Boston games. To me it was The Two and the other 80."
"The first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did," counters Bird. "I didn't care about anything else."
Now that's a rivalry.
What made each of these great rivalries take, of course, was that these epic confrontations were generally fought out at the highest level. Russell and Chamberlain (that is to say, Boston and Philadelphia/San Francisco/Los Angeles, due to Wilt's perambulations) played for the Eastern Conference title in 1960, 1962, 1965, 1966, 1967 and 1968, and for the NBA championship in 1964 (San Francisco) and 1969 (Los Angeles). Bird and Magic, each of whom spent his entire career with one team, played for the NBA championship in 1984, 1985 and 1987.
If you were to look at the Russell-Chamberlain rivalry strictly in terms of the individual numbers, you'd say, "What's the fuss?"
Chamberlain averaged exactly 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds a game during those 142 games, the point totals brought down a bit by his late-in-career transformation from 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 were 14.5 points and 23.7 rebounds per game. His highest-scoring game against his arch rival was 37.
But Russell had the ultimate trump card. He wound up on the winning side more often than not. In the 10 years in question, Russell won nine championships to Wilt's one. The argument will rage on forever: Did Wilt just not know how to win, or did he lack the supporting cast that Russell enjoyed?
Take the night he scored the 62. The Celtics won the game, 145-136. The Celtics led by 31 in the fourth quarter. Wilt scored 42 in the second half, but his team was never in the game. Russell fans say that was an all-too-familiar scenario when these two played, especially in the first five or six years of their duels.
Russell would never go there. He had, and has, nothing but the utmost respect for Wilt Chamberlain, who impressed him from the get-go.
"After I played him for the first time," Russell says, "I said, 'Let's see. He's four or five inches taller. He's 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!"
His appreciation grew with each passing year. By 1962, the third year of their rivalry, their teams would meet for the Eastern Conference championship. Wilt was pluperfectly monstrous that season, averaging a record 50.4 points per game. The series went seven games, with Russell and friends able to keep the Big Dipper under some kind of control. (In 12 playoff games that year, Wilt averaged 35 points and 27 rebounds.) A Sam Jones jumper with two seconds remaining won the seventh game by a 109-107 score, and Russell (19 points and 26 rebounds a game) immediately requested to be left alone for awhile.
"I haven't had any sleep all week," he said. "Every time I went out on the court, that guy seemed to grow a little taller."
The Celtics' championship tally grew as well, with Chamberlain being on the losing side in '64, '65 and '66. There was no doubt his frustration was mounting, but he was always civil in public when the issue was raised. After a 30-point, 39-rebound performance brought down the Celtics in Game 2 of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals, for example, Russell heaped praise on his rival.
"The big fella was great, real great," he observed. "That was the best game he ever played against me."
Wilt's response: "I don't want to talk about this being a victory over Russell, but a victory over Boston.
There always was a larger context in both the Russell-Wilt and Bird-Magic rivalries. None of the four played in a vacuum. Russell once played on a team with seven future Hall of Famers, not including himself.
Wilt, at various times, played with Nate Thurmond, Paul Arizin, Billy Cunningham, Tom Gola, Hal Greer, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, who are all in the Hall of Fame, not to mention Chet Walker and Guy Rodgers, who could be. Bird played with Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Bill Walton. Magic played with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper.
So very seldom was it all about them as individuals. It usually was about how they fit into the team. That was surely the crux of the Bird-Magic thing—championships.
For awhile there was a nice symmetry. Magic won in '80. Bird won in '81. Magic won in '82. Bird won in '84. Magic won in '85. Bird won in '86.
But Magic and the Lakers took over, even as Bird's body was starting to break down. The favored Lakers won in 1987, but it took a Herculean effort to win the pivotal Game 4. Did someone say "one-upsmanship?" How about Bird drilling a nerveless corner three-pointer to put the Celtics ahead by one with seconds remaining, only to see Magic out-do him with a running hook over Bird, McHale and Parish—yes, all three—a shot Magic called his "junior, junior sky-hook."
Bird even had the last shot, another corner jumper that was a hair long.
"The thing between us was that neither team could ever relax," says Magic. "You never felt the game was over. That night was a great example.
Even after Larry misses, we were afraid to move. It was like . . . we won? . . .With individuals like us, and with two cities going crazy—not just two cities, but the world — there will never be another rivalry like it again."
We'll see. Magic may or may not be right. Shaquille O'Neal or Kevin Garnett vs. Tim Duncan or Alonzo Mourning? Vince Carter vs. Grant Hill? Why not Allen Iverson vs. Stephon Marbury? They're only an hour and a half apart, which helps. So it's possible.
But not probable. No one will ever again play each other 142 times, at least not officially, as did Wilt and Russ. Nor are we likely to get another white guy-black guy, country bumpkin-city slicker matchup with such parallel skills and basketball sensibilities, as Bird-Magic.
Let's just say, with great conviction, that these are the two greatest rivalries in NBA history, and all future ones will be measured against them.
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