Thursday , Oct , 18 , 2007 C.Y. Ellis

Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell: New Perspectives

In the world of competitive team sports, individual achievements are usually respected and admired. However, they can also be heavily criticized, and even frowned upon. Those who decide to undermine individual success usually do so under the pretext that the intentions of the athlete who accomplished the feats were selfish and narcissistic, and served no purpose other than to establish him or herself as a dominant force. Therefore, the athlete would only seeking personal gain in the most selfish way imaginable – by surrendering the possibility of a collective triumph.

Wilt Chamberlain, widely considered to be one of the best basketball players of all-time, has been the victim of such accusations since he entered the NBA in the early 1960s. The main reason for these continuous attacks is the unprecedented team success his rival (and, later, friend) Bill Russell enjoyed in the same era. Both men were immediately comparable as basketball players: As tall, athletic, and extremely gifted and versatile athletes, they ushered an era that took the quality of the game of basketball to never-before-seen heights. Both of them were incredible rebounders, considered by many to be the best two glass-cleaners in the history of the game. Time would prove that Chamberlain was by far the more talented scorer, yet Russell’s consistent team success would provide a basis for comparison that would make the Russell-Chamberlain debate endure for decades to follow.

In the 1956-57 NBA season, Bill Russell’s first, he averaged 14.7 points and 19.6 rebounds a game for a Celtic team that featured five players that would eventually be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame. His defensive contributions and his rebounding made an immediate impact, and Boston won the championship. Wilt Chamberlain had a very different rookie season three years later. He won the All-Star Game MVP award and averaged 37.6 points and 27 rebounds per game, both of these numbers becoming NBA records that he would eventually surpass. He also won the Most Valuable Player and the Rookie of the Year awards, becoming the first player to garner both honors the same year, and as of 2007, one of only two. However, in the playoffs his team succumbed to Russell’s Celtics in six games, beginning a trend that would continue for the rest of the decade. It should be noted that the Celtics’ roster featured a total of six future Hall-of-Famers, while Chamberlain’s had only three.

In the 142 occasions that both players faced each other, Russell’s team was victorious 84 times. There is no question that Russell played for some of the greatest teams in NBA history. He was part of a Celtic dynasty that won the championship for an unbelievable eight consecutive seasons. However, the most striking fact in these head-to-head matchups is the statistical disparity between Russell and Chamberlain’s individual numbers. As a dominant rebounder, Russell averaged 23.7 rebounds a game against Chamberlain, an impressive number overshadowed only by Chamberlain’s own 28.7 rebounds per game. During Chamberlain’s tenure in the NBA, a total of 14 seasons from 1959 to 1973, he lead the league in rebounding 11 times. When you also consider the fact that Chamberlain’s NBA record 55 rebounds in a game was accomplished against Russell, it becomes clear that Chamberlain was the superior rebounder.

As previously stated, both men were possibly the best rebounders of all-time, certainly the best of their era. On the other hand, when it came to scoring, Chamberlain was peerless in his and quite possibly any era. In the 142 games that he played against Russell, he averaged 28.7 points, nearly twice as much as Russell’s 14.5 The number of NBA scoring records Chamberlain holds is astonishing. In the 1961-62 season he scored 4,029 points, averaging 50.4 points per game, including the famous 100-point game. In that season he topped the 50-point mark 45 times, including a seven-game 50-plus streak. All of these records remain unchallenged to this day. As further testament of his basketball prowess, he averaged a league-leading 25.7 rebounds per game. Shockingly, Bill Russell was named the MVP of that season after averaging 18.9 points per game (a career-high) and 23.9 rebounds. He would also capture his fourth consecutive NBA championship.

Before Chamberlain won his first championship (the only one he achieved while Russell was in the NBA), Russell’s teams had already won eight consecutive and nine total rings. In this 1966-67 season, Chamberlain debuted with the Philadelphia 76ers and changed his style of play dramatically in an effort to achieve the team success that had eluded him throughout his career. An above-average shooter who always made around 50 percent of his field goal attempts, he decided to take fewer total shots and to distribute the ball to give his teammates more important roles in the team’s offense. This paid dividends, as he averaged a record .683 FG% (which he would eventually shatter with .712 in the 1972-73 season) and finished third in the league in assists with 7.8 a game, unheard of for a center. In comparison, Russell was always a below-average shooter, making 44% of his shots in the regular season and 43% in the playoffs, and while he was a great passer in his own right, Chamberlain again overshadows him in this aspect. He became the only center in NBA history to lead the league in assists when he averaged 8.6 a game in the 1967-68 season. 

For those that say he was a “loser” whose teams could never measure up to Russell’s, his 1966-67 Sixer team set a record with 68 wins in the regular season and defeated Russell’s Celtics in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals. This proves that Chamberlain was a highly versatile player who, while capable of performing amazing one-man feats, was also able to sacrifice his own personal numbers for the benefit of his team, the intangible quality that marks a truly great player, and in this case, makes him the best of his era.