What’s the Bigger Personal NBA Rivalry: Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell or Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson?

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Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird shoots a jumper over Los Angeles Lakers guard Magic Johnson.

Throughout the years, there have been plenty of intense personal rivalries across sports: Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal, Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, and Arnold Palmer vs. Jack Nicklaus are just a few. In the NBA, there have been two that stand out the most — Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell and Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. Which of the two was the biggest personal rivalry?

Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell

They were two of the best centers of their time. They are also two of the best centers of all time. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain formed one of the NBA’s earliest personal rivalries in the 1950s. Russell dominated the paint for the Boston Celtics with a defense-first mindset, while Chamberlain was a do-it-all center who came into the NBA in 1959 as a territorial pick of the Philadelphia Warriors.

The highly-anticipated inaugural matchup between the two didn’ty disappoint. Chamberlain finished with 20 points and 28 rebounds, while Russell had 22 points and 36 rebounds in a Celtics win. In the second meeting, Chamberlain racked up 45 points and pulled down 35 rebounds . Russell had 15 points and 13 boards in a Philly win.

Chamberlain almost always put up the better stats. Russell, however, usually pulled out the victory. The two dominated the NBA for years, each winning the MVP award three straight years. Larry Bird was the only other player in league history to accomplish that feat.

Chamberlain finished his career with two championships, while Russell collected 11. Chamberlain never had the supporting cast Russell did. The two squared off 13 times each other in Chamberlain’s rookie year, paving the way for what would be arguably the best individual rivalry in all of sports for years to come.

Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson

The Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson rivalry began before the two reached the NBA. The two stars squared off in the 1979 NCAA title game when Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans defeated Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in what remains the highest-rated college basketball game in history.

The following season, Bird headed to the Celtics and Magic to the Lakers, beginning what would become the next big individual NBA rivalry. Bird turned the Celtics from a 29-win team into one that led the NBA with 61 victories in his first season. Magic led the Lakers to his first NBA championship and was named MVP of the 1980 NBA Finals.

Bird and Johnson brought some much-needed respect to their teams. Each year in the 1980s, either the Celtics or the Lakers reached the NBA Finals. They squared off against each other in the championship round three times.

We’ll give the nod to Bird vs. Johnson as the bigger personal rivalry, simply because the two stars were responsible for taking the NBA to another level. The game grew with these two stars. Their individual rivalry helped rekindle the Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry from decades past.

While Russell and Chamberlain can be credited with starting the NBA’s first significant individual rivalry, we’ll say the Bird vs. Magic one was slightly bigger.