Bill Russell and Jerry West competed feverishly on the hardwood and defined the Boston Celtics–Los Angeles Lakers rivalry of the 1960s. Both NBA legends had disdain for the opposing franchises, with West once saying he did not have anything green in his wardrobe.
But the respect between the two men ran even deeper.
Russell always admired West’s game and sought to elevate his peer even in defeat. In fact, Russell told West that his only desire in life had everything to The Logo’s happiness.
Bill Russell and the Celtics kept Jerry West and the Lakers from winning a championship in the 1960s
Jerry West and the Lakers met Bill Russell and the Celtics in the NBA Finals six times during the 1960s. The Purple and Gold lost every single one of those matchups. More often than not, the losses came in a heartbreaking fashion.
Boston defeated LA in seven games during the 1962 NBA Finals despite West and Elgin Baylor, who Kobe Bryant emulated, combining to average an absurd 71.7 points for the series. Russell’s dominance on the glass keyed the Celtics’ victory, as he averaged 27.0 boards and gave the C’s some playmaking at 5.7 assists per contest.
The Celtics again got the better of the Lakers in 1963. The next matchup between the two teams (1965) proved a cakewalk for Boston, but LA again pushed Russell and Co. to the limit in 1966. West averaged 33.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists on 51.5% shooting, but Russell’s presence in the trenches again proved vital as the C’s outrebounded the Lakers 430 to 370 for the contest.
The backbreaker came in 1969, Russell’s final season in the NBA. West became the only player in league history to win Finals MVP in a losing effort, as the Celtics bested the Lakers in another seven-game barnburner.
Russell wrote West a note saying his only “wish” entailed West finding happiness
Jerry West could easily feel a sense of bitterness toward Russell, even though The Logo eventually did win a ring in 1972. Instead, there’s only admiration between the two all-time greats.
West recently told The Athletic that he feels disrespected by the Lakers and detailed how his relationship has crumbled in recent years. But the Hall of Famer also revealed that the approval of his contemporaries is the thing that matters most to him now. He has profusely praised Oscar Robertson and others in his era. It only makes sense that he also seeks validation.
Naturally, West must have felt a sense of pride when he received a glowing note from Russell late last year.
“The greatest honor a man can have is the respect and friendship of his peers. You have that more than any man I know. If I could have one wish granted, it would be that you would always be happy. Bill Russell.”–Bill Russell to Jerry West, per The Athletic
That simple message represents the profound respect West attained from Russell and other legends of that era. After all, there’s a reason his visage represents the Association.
Similarly, Russell’s note epitomizes the grace he exhibited as one of the NBA’s foremost pioneers, and still maintains to this day.
Russell always gives flowers to his toughest competitors
Jerry West isn’t the only legend Bill Russell and the Celtics kept from winning a championship for most of the 1960s.
Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers eventually won a title in 1967, but that victory only came after consecutive defeats at the hands of the Celtics. Those clashes birthed an iconic individual rivalry between Russell and the Big Dipper, who became the eminent faces of the NBA during the decade.
However, Russell and Chamberlain only ever had love for one another. The two even spent Thanksgivings together, though Wilt joked that Russell was a poor holiday guest because he feasted at Chamberlain’s table before often besting the Big Dipper on the court.
Regardless, Russell’s friendship with Chamberlain and West, as well as his connection to the stars of today, make him one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.