Wilt vs. Russell
In baseball, there are all-time greats — guys like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, etc. But there’s only one Babe Ruth.
Ruth has reached almost demi-god status. He’s a ghost. A symbol of a once-upon-a-time where baseball was larger than life. Baseball was the epicenter of American sports and Ruth served as it’s King. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell are the two closest people the NBA has to that type of legendary status, even though Russell is still very much alive. They were that important to the game.
If Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are credited with bringing basketball out of its own Dark Ages, then Chamberlain and Russell built the original pillars, drew up the blueprints and created the aqueducts of the NBA’s first great empire.
Chamberlain was a freak of nature by all accounts, but in the best way possible. He was blessed with tremendous strength and length that dominated opponents into submission night after night. His per-game stats during his best years would shatter todays NBA center’s best numbers for an entire week. His 100-point game against the Knicks in Hershey, PA and his 1961-62 season averages of 50 points and 25 rebounds will forever live on in basketball lore. Even children today are familiar with the name Wilt Chamberlain, which speaks volumes about his impact on the game.
On the other hand, Russell was the greatest winner in NBA history. A five-time NBA MVP and 11-time World Champion, Russell was the antithesis of Chamberlain’s one-man show. He only averaged 15 points a game for his career, compared to Chamberlain’s 30. His Celtics teams featured Hall of Famers Bob Cousy and John Havlicek. Russell was the defensive anchor, team leader and later in his career, player-coach. While Chamberlain got the records, Russell and his Celtics got the rings.
Russel and Wilt played head-to-head 51 times in the regular season from 1963, when Chamberlain was a member of the San Francisco Warriors, to 1969, when Russell ultimately retired. Russell’s Celtics edged out Wilt 26-25, and in their 36 playoff matchups, the Celtics were once again victorious 21 times. Chamberlain outscored Russell 23.2 to 10.8 in the regular season and 23.4 to 12.6 in the playoffs.
Russell’s Celtics are often talked about as the greatest NBA franchise and it’s well deserved. From 1959-1969 they won every NBA championship, except the 1966-67 season when Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham, Hal Greer and the rest of the 76ers finally broke through that Celtic wall and won their first championship.
The Celtics may have more hardware, but the rivalry wasn’t nearly as one-sided as you’re often led to believe. Chamberlain is a giant in basketball history. Every young basketball fan should read up on his exploits. He was one of a kind. And Chamberlain and Russell’s rivalry, the Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali of the NBA, is one of the all-time great rivalries sports has ever seen.