They were universally bigger than the game. In fact, to a large portion of the sports public in the 1960s that only paid attention to professional basketball when the championships came around, they were the game. It wasn’t Boston vs. Philly, or, later, Boston vs. LA; it was Wilt vs. Russell.
The mush discussed anniversary of Wilt Chamberlains’ incredible 100-point game is to also remember the greatest one-on-one rivalry in the history of American sports.
To understand what a force Wilt was, you have to realize that the dunk as we know it — the macho, crowd-pleasing power play — started with Chamberlain. And the shot-blocking specialist, the man capable of stopping the dunk, was Bill Russell.
It goes without saying that Russell is one of the greatest players of all time, being voted the league’s MVP by his fellow players no less than five times. But because Russell and the Celtics dominated the NBA, it’s widely assumed that Russell outplayed Chamberlain in their many duels. In fact, it’s a B-ball commonplace that the Celtic won primarily because Russell stopped Chamberlain. But though Russell was the greatest winner in NBA history, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he wasn’t the greatest player.
For instance, rebounding. Russell is regarded by man as the greatest rebounder to ever play (or at least to play before Dennis Rodman). And he was an octopus under the boards, averaging 22.5 a game for his career. But Wilt averaged more rebounds in eight of the ten seasons they both played in the league, and against Chamberlain, Russell averaged just 14.8 rebounds per game. Wilt’s career rebounding average was 22 per game, but against Russell he averaged 28.7, 4.5 more than he pulled down against the rest of the league. Rebounding edge to Wilt.
Scoring? Wilt was the most prodigious score-er who ever played. He led the NBA in scoring in his first seven seasons. And in 1961-62 he averaged 50.4 points per game on 50% field goal shooting. The field goal percentage is the key: not only did Chamberlain outscore Russell by a wide margin, which would probably be expected given the dependence of Wilt’s teams on him, but his shooting percentage is more than 100 points higher than Russell’s. Wilt’s superiority wasn’t simply a question of scoring opportunities. During the Russell years, Chamberlain averaged 34.5 points per game against the league; against Russell, he scored 28.7 points per game — 5.8 points below his league-leading average. That, of course, proves how much better defensively Russell was than the other centers around the league. Still, Wilt did average 28.7 points against perhaps the greatest defensive center who ever played and poured 40 points or more against Russell 26 times. Russell, on the other hand, averaged a modest 14.8 points per game during the 10-year span against the rest of the league (he averaged 15.1 points per game during his 13-year career). Against Wilt, he averaged 23.7 points per game, 8.9 points higher than his regular season average. That shows you how adaptable and talented Russell was; it’s also an indication that Russell could have scored more points if the Celtics had needed him to. He scored more against Wilt because he felt he had to. But against the rest of the league, he didn’t need to score as much for the Celtics to win.
Still, Wilt averaged five points per game more than Russell during their head-to-head meetings. And he had a higher field goal percentage in mano-y-mano matchups. Scoring advantage: Wilt.
I don’t know that I’d make a case for Wilt or Russell as the greatest players in NBA history, but I might be persuaded to use the term “most dominant” to them. Bill Cunningham, who played the game from 1965-1976, said it best: “When you were on the court with them, they so dominated that you would find yourself stopping just to watch them. I’ve never had that feeling with any two other players.”