In the 1960s, there was no personal rivalry as intense as Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain. While Russell’s Celtics piled up nine championships during the decade, the only break in the chain went to Chamberlain in 1967. Old heads often decry the friendships exhibited by today’s generation of NBA players, But Wilt and Russell were close friends off the court, even as they were fierce competitors on it.
The NBA was much smaller when Chamberlain and Russell battled, and from Wilt’s rookie year in 1959–60 to Russell’s final season in 1968–69, they met a whopping 94 times in the regular season. In the playoffs, they added another 49 matchups. Across those 10 seasons, the superstars collided eight times in the playoffs. Russell had a huge advantage, with Boston winning seven of those series.
Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain personified a war of playing styles
Wilt Chamberlain developed a reputation as a great player who prioritized statistics over wins for better or worse. On the other hand, Bill Russell’s image was the ultimate team player, putting personal goals aside in favor of greater glory.
Wilt won six straight scoring titles to start his career, and when he retired, his 30.1 points per game average was the best in NBA history. His average of 22.9 rebounds per game is likely an unbeatable record.
Russell was a five-time rebounding champion and is just behind Chamberlain on the all-time list with an average of 22.5 boards a night. But he had the rings. Chamberlain had the ladies. It wasn’t fair to Chamberlain, but it was the narrative of the day.
Given most of the coverage of the NBA (and all sports) at the time was in the newspapers, many fans didn’t realize the close relationship the two giants of the league shared.
A holiday visit from Russell
The NBA wasn’t on television often in the 1960s. The network wanted to highlight Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Preferably that meant Wilt vs. Russell. Usually, the schedule would pair the two around the holidays.
One year, Chamberlain recalled hosting Russell at his house on Thanksgiving, the day before the teams played. The friends shared a meal, an evening at home, and then went to war.
Wilt’s memories of the holiday are bittersweet, per a joint interview with Russell by Bob Costas in 1997.
“Bill would come to my house on Thanksgiving night because we had Philly vs. Boston the next night. He would sleep in my bed and take some food, and he would go out there and whip my butt.”
That was most often the case. In the regular season, the Celtics were 57–37 in the Russell-Chamberlain battles. The count in the postseason was 29–20, but with a 9–1 edge in series victories for Boston.
Both players were all-time greats. But given the obsession with rings, Russell holds a higher place in the game’s hierarchy.
Bill Russell is the Lord of the Rings, but Wilt Chamberlain changed his game to win a second one
No player in NBA history won as many championships as Bill Russell’s 11. For all his achievements, Wilt Chamberlain finished his career with only two.
However, his second ring speaks to his ability to be what his team needed, something often overlooked when studying Chamberlain’s legacy.
With the Los Angeles Lakers in 1971–72, the game’s ultimate scorer averaged only 9.3 shots per game. It was almost unfathomable from a player who topped 30 attempts a night four times in his career and flirted with 40 (39.5) in 1961–62.
What Chamberlain did was anchor the Lakers’ defense and cleaned the glass. At age 35, he led the NBA with 19.2 rebounds per game and was named Finals MVP as LA eviscerated the New York Knicks in five games.
The irony of Russell’s career is that while the NBA Finals MVP award now bears his name, he never won it. Though Boston won the title the year the award was introduced in 1969, Lakers superstar Jerry West received it (still the only player from the losing team to win it).
Inseparable in history, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were tremendous competitors for a decade. In the process of fighting those battles, they forged a lifelong friendship that endured until Wilt’s untimely death in 1999. A legacy as competitive gentlemen is a proud one to bear.