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The Legendary Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell Rivalry

Looking back through the annals of basketball and NBA history, we find a great rivalry that defined a generation and featured two truly exceptional players, both of whom are still regarded as being amongst the best of all time. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain hold numerous NBA records between them, while there personal and professional sporting rivalry has become the stuff of legend.

Best of Friends to Best of Enemies

What makes this particular sporting rivalry all the more interesting, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were close personal friends for most of their NBA careers, despite often being pitted against one another on the basketball court. These two players were widely considered to be the best of their generation, both hugely talented in their positions and highly motivated to succeed, driven and undoubtedly determined with a burning desire to win.

Russel was an 11x NBA champion (1957, 1959-199, 1968, 1969), 5x NBA MVP, and 12x NBA All-Star. Chamberlain won two NBA championships (1967, 1972), along with 4x NBA MVP awards, and 13x NBA All-Star appearances. Both played the center position, bringing them in direct competition whenever their teams played, although comparisons are often contrasting and simplified. Their duels are often remembered with Chamberlain regarded as the great individualistic player, versus Russel as the more selfless player who made his teams great.

Every appearance in confrontation was a special occasion. "Russell vs. Chamberlain: A Rivalry For The Ages" headlined the Chicago Tribune in 1991, fondly recalling "Big Bill" and "Wilt the Stilt" in their prime, during the "Golden Age" of basketball. Such was their impact on professional basketball, rules were even changed in the NBA to counter their dominance in the sport. Anecdotally, it has often been said that Russell hated the word "rivalry" being used, whenever he came up against Chamberlain, although this is exactly what it would become.

The Turning Point & The Legacy

Despite their mutual professional admiration and love for basketball, Russell and Chamberlain rarely spoke about the game whenever they were together, which often included Thanksgiving celebrations with their families. Then after one fateful comment after Game 7 of the 1968 NBA Finals, between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, when Chamberlain was forced out of the game with six minutes on the clock due to a knee injury.

After the game and unbeknown to Russel during a conversation with students, he was overheard criticizing Chamberlain, accusing him of being a malingerer and "copping out" of the game with a fake injury. Chamberlain was absolutely furious with Russell for such comments, feeling that he had been betrayed by his friend, especially given the knee injury was genuine and caused continued problems the following season.

Such was the enmity caused by those fleeting comments, Chamberlain and Russell refused to speak for more than twenty years, until Russell finally met Chamberlain in private and offered a personal apology. Afterwards, and with their friendship rekindled, both would appear quite regularly together in TV interviews. In a eulogy for Chamberlain when he passed away in 1999, Russell insisted they would "be friends for eternity" and never rivals, but merely competitors in sport. Both now form part of the same NBA 75th Anniversary Team, amongst the greatest players ever grace the game.

Great Rivalries Make Great Entertainment

There’s no doubting the rivalry of Russell and Chamberlain, still regarded as one of the greatest ever in professional basketball, enjoyed by fans of the era and still today via the old video reels. Whenever the top sports personalities of any generation go head-to-head, such fascinating rivalries add to the overall entertainment of any sport, which is why we often tend to choose our own favorite competitors.

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