I was sitting in the passenger seat of a Volkswagen in a parking lot outside the Boston Garden.
I looked out the side window and all I saw was a pair of knees.
It was Wilt Chamberlain walking by, and he was the biggest man I had ever seen.
I thought, how could anyone defend him on the basketball court? But then, I had just seen it done, by Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics.
It was 1962, and “Wilt the Stilt” was in the middle of the most remarkable offensive season of what would be a 14 year career.
That year he would score 100 points in a game against the New York Knickerbockers, and average 50.4 points per game.
No player has ever come close to that mark.
Michael Jordan’s high mark was 37 points per game in 1986/87, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s best was 34.8 in 1971/72. LeBron James’ top average is 31 points per game.
However, on that night in 1962, Russell held Wilt to far below his average as the Celtics took charge late and won the game.
Chamberlain topped Russell on the stat sheet, but a play late was typical of the battles they would have for ten years.
“Big Bill” deflected a shot by Wilt to a Celtic teammate, and then raced down the court, and put in an offensive rebound before Chamberlain could get back on defense. That was Bill Russell, a shot blocker, not a shot swatter that just knocks the ball out of bounds. Russell’s rebounding and shot blocking keyed the fast break, actions that didn’t show up in individual statistics, but resulted in Celtic wins.
Their rivalry had begun in 1959, when Chamberlain made his debut. Although Russell had already won two championships in three years, many skeptics doubted that Bill could handle the big fellow. Chamberlain was 3-4 inches taller, and outweighed him by 50 lbs.
Also, Wilt was not just a tall basketball player, but a superior athlete equal to Russell.
It would be the “irresistible offensive force” encountering the “immovable defensive object.”
Early on, Russell discovered he could get the jump on his taller opponent, that perhaps he had just he slightest advantage with his reflexes, that he was a touch quicker on his feet. Chamberlain had to really work to get his points. They each found an opponent secure in his own talent as they forced the other to work harder, to stretch further, and to demand more of himself.
An athlete reaches his best when he has a worthy opponent, when two great talents with contrasting styles collide in the same era. Arnold Palmer had Jack Nicklaus in golf, Jimmy Connors had Bjorn Borg in tennis. Muhammad Ali, the ultimate boxer, had Joe Frazier, the straight ahead puncher, for three of the greatest heavyweight fights in history. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, with their high above the rim athletic ballet, changed the game of basketball in their decade of the 1960’s.
They went head to head over 140 times, and the Celtics won 87 of those contests. Chamberlain out pointed and out rebounded his nemesis, but in the words of Russell, “The only important statistic is the score.”
Bill was at his best with the game on the line in the postseason. Russell was 10-0 in Game 7’s, and 16-2 in close out games. He won 11 championships in 13 seasons, a record of dominance in a sport that I doubt will ever be broken.
Although they feuded, Bill and Wilt had became close in the years leading up to Chamberlain passing from a heart attack in 1999.
His death affected Russell profoundly.
The fact was that the two of them understood each other, because of those moments of intensity on the court thirty to forty years earlier, when they pushed each other to play harder than they had ever done before.
They were rivals, but the fact is, they loved playing against each other more than anything. They loved the competition. “The fierceness of that competition,” said Russell, “bonded us forever.”