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Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell Were the NBA’s First Frenemies

The NBA’s first icons shared a unique bond, but their on-court rivalry also created great friction—and, eventually, a falling out

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For decades, the NBA has been a star’s league. But even among the stars, there’s an exclusive club. Russell and Dr. J. Bird and Magic. Jordan. Kobe. They’re all part of a select group that paved the way for the NBA superstar of today. And in Icons Club: The Evolution of the NBA Superstar, Hall of Fame reporter Jackie MacMullan explains how some even shared secrets with each other along the way.

Here’s an excerpt from Episode 1, which tracks the complex relationship between the game’s first titans: Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Listen to the prologue here.

The early NBA was a fledgling curiosity, without much traction, financial backing, or cachet.

While Drake, Spike Lee, Jay-Z, and Jack Nicholson are mainstays in today’s NBA experience, there were no stars plunking themselves down in courtside seats hoping to be “seen” in the ’60s. Most of the games weren’t even televised.

“We were at the bottom of the sports totem pole,” says Bob Cousy, the league MVP in 1957. “Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball in 1947, and it was international headlines. Three years later, Walter Brown—wonderful man, owner of the Celtics—got up at the league meeting and said, ‘The Celtics draft Chuck Cooper from Duquesne,’ and Eddie Gottlieb, owner of Philadelphia, I’m told, got up and said, ‘Walter, don’t you know he’s a Negro?’ And to Walter’s credit, he said, ‘I really don’t give a shit whether he’s polka-dotted. Arnold Auerbach, who I just hired as my coach, tells me he can help us win, so we draft Chuck Cooper.’”

Cousy clarified that this wasn’t so much a story about race as it was about relevance.

“The point of the story is, to this day, I have yet to read one story about the NBA’s integration,” Cousy says. “And the sorry fact is nobody gave a damn, OK? We were so Mickey Mouse that nobody cared what color we were.’’

Because of this obscurity, salaries were so minuscule that the majority of the top players were forced to secure offseason jobs. Cousy ran a driving school and a summer basketball camp. Satch Sanders, the Hall of Fame forward, worked at a sporting goods store and, later, in a real estate office. Lenny Wilkens landed a marketing job.

And then there was Rick Barry, the All-Star MVP in 1967.

“I sold season tickets for the Warriors to make a few extra dollars,” Barry told me.

Neither Wilt Chamberlain nor Bill Russell needed to generate offseason income. They were the faces of the league, and when the two of them squared off, there was guaranteed buzz.

The average attendance at a Celtics game in 1963 was 7,455 fans—unless Wilt was in town, and then the Garden would fill to its capacity of over 14,000 paying customers.

Russell was acutely aware of their rivalry and the jockeying for position and bragging rights. When Wilt negotiated a $100,000 contract—a lavish sum in 1965—Russell went to the Celtics, flashed his rings, and demanded $1 more.

The two rivals shared the undeniable bond—and, quite often, the burden—of being highly visible Black athletes whose stature made it impossible to blend into a crowd. They were asked to carry a teetering league, while also attempting to wrestle the championship trophy from one another.

And they were vying for the mantle of the best player in the game.

In spite of that tension, Wilt and Russell managed to maintain a relationship that was quite often very warm—and very personal.

When the Celtics played the Philadelphia Warriors on Thanksgiving, Russell came into Philly the night before and stayed at Wilt’s house. He claims he did that six years in a row.

“I mean, he’d come past my house on Thanksgiving, eat my food, sleep in my bed, and the next day whip my butt,” Wilt told Bob Costas in 1997. “Now my mother would say, ‘Now, Wilt, we shouldn’t feed Bill so well next time.”

Indeed, many suspected that Russell employed Art of War techniques to lull Wilt into a false sense of success.

During an interview I did with Kobe Bryant in his final season, he shared with me a phone conversation he had with Bill Russell in the year 2000. Russell admitted to him that he would play Wilt tough while the game was in question, but would ease off once the game was in hand so that Wilt could score and be satisfied with his numbers in defeat. Kobe claimed that Russell believed if he defended Wilt too tightly, he would take it as a challenge and would “demolish” Russell because he was so big and strong.

So Russell could live with Wilt making the All-NBA first team seven times, while he was chosen on only three occasions. So what if Wilt had seven scoring titles and Russ had none? The tally that mattered to him was championships, and in that category, Russell holds a commanding 11-2 advantage. Wilt never experienced the satisfaction of beating Russell and the Celtics in the Finals.

It was supposed to happen in 1969, when Wilt teamed with Jerry West in Los Angeles. The Lakers were favored, but Wilt injured his knee in the deciding Game 7 and limped to the bench. He never returned, despite imploring Lakers coach Butch van Breda Kolff late in the game to let him go back in. Boston won the championship—again.

Russell, among others, questioned the severity of Wilt’s injury. Russ was furious that Wilt’s absence down the stretch clouded the victory. It was, after all, the final game of Russell’s illustrious career. In a speech at the University of Wisconsin later that year, he claimed that Wilt “copped out” of the game and that “any injury short of a broken leg or broken back isn’t good enough.’’

A wounded Wilt stopped talking to Russell for decades. Russell wrote in his memoir, Second Wind, “Wilt’s leaving was like a misspelled word at the end of a cherished book. My anger at him that night caused great friction between us.”