NBA’s Greatest Rivalries : Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain

The Battle of the Giants


The 1960’s were dominated by the Boston Celtics – 9 championships won, multiple hall of famers, and the greatest dynasty ever seen in professional basketball. However, one man threatened to change it all and very nearly did so – Wilt Chamberlain aka “The Big Dipper”.

The Boston Celtics had already won 3 championships and Bill Russell was on his way to becoming the leader of the most decorated team in basketball. When Wilt Chamberlain came into the league in 1961, he was the biggest, strongest and most skilled offensive player ever to grace the basketball court. However, he ended up with just 1 NBA title during the Bill Russell era. It was partly down to the supporting cast around him, and partly due to the superior will of Bill Russell. Of course the quality of talent that Russell had was better, including the legendary coach Red Auerbach, but he was also the ultimate competitor.

When the entire world was raving about the new sensation that was Wilt Chamberlain, Red Auerbach had no doubt in his mind as to who would come out on top between the two. In 142 meetings, Russell won 85 to Wilt’s 57 games. They met each other in the Eastern Conference Finals 6 times and twice in the NBA Finals. Bill Russell never managed to fill the box score quite like Wilt. But he got the most important numbers, wins!

It is believed that most of Wilt’s points came in dead game situations, when Russell had pulled his foot off the pedal. Russell was probably the only man who could have stopped Wilt Chamberlain from dominating the league and vice-versa. Both big men were strong, fast, imposing and more than a handful for anyone. But what set Russell apart from the beginning was his willingness to sacrifice for the team and help get the wins. Chamberlain has often been accused of not trusting his teammates enough and trying to win it all alone. He is perhaps the better of the two players on an individual level, in one on one situations, but when you look at the overall team, Russell managed to stay ahead.

Contests between the two are often referred to as ‘David vs Goliath’. Wilt was the irresistible force and Russell the immovable object. Wilt’s game was built on offense and Russell was the best defender in the game. Wilt believed he could score against anyone and Russell had the ability to shut down anyone. Matchups often swung one way then the other but eventually, Russell got his way. The superior strategy of the Celtics was another factor in helping them win. But had it not been for Wilt Chamberlain, who managed to break the monopoly of the Celtics in 1967, the Celtics would have probably had an even more legendary dynasty.

Off the court, the duo held the utmost respect for each other, and was also best of friends, famously spending thanksgiving dinners together with their families. It’s how sporting rivalries should be, competitive on the court, and friendly off of it. They laid the foundation for the next great rivalry, between another pair of legendary Celtics and Lakers stars, who would dominate the game for an entire decade.

Photo by Kip-koech