Bill Russell holds an 11-2 lead over Wilt Chamberlain in the most important category in the NBA - rings. On a more personal level, most of their playoffs matchups ended with Russell celebrating and Chamberlain going home. The closest Wilt ever got to upstaging his rival on the grandest stage of all, the NBA Finals, was in 1969. It turned out that would be the day that caused a decades-long break in their relationship.
With a 1-6 record against the Russell Celtics in the playoffs and drama in Philadelphia, Chamberlain asked for a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. He accepted the fact in order to truly be competitive against his rival, Wilt needed more help. So he joined forces with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Talk about a Big Three.
Wilt's wish came true - the Celtics were waiting for them in the Finals. Not only that but the Lakers were considered to be clear favorites. The stage was set for Wilt to finally get one over Russell in the Finals. As you can suspect, things went down to a Game 7.
The Lakers trailed 91–76 after three quarters but managed to make a comeback. Then Wilt twisted his knee and went out of the game. With three minutes to go, the Lakers trailed 103–102 and lost the game 108-106. Wilt never checked back into the game. He asked to be put back in, but Lakers coach "Butch" van Breda Kolff never subbed him back in.
To put in perspective how close the Lakers were - these were the only Finals in NBA history where the Finals MVP was awarded to a player on the losing team. Jerry West dropped 42 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists in Game 7. After the game, a lot of people questioned Wilt's toughness and the severity of his injury. One person's comments went straight to Chamberlain's heart.
“Russ was furious that Wilt's absence clouded the victory. It was, after all, the final game of Russell's illustrious career. In his 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.”
Jackie MacMullan, Icons Club
To Russell, Wilt's absence ruined the final moment of his career. His comments set the narrative that went on for years. Wilt's toughness and willingness to win were often questioned, and Russell making that comment stoked that fire to unlimited levels. Once great friends didn't even speak to each other. That is, until someone at Reebok came up with an idea to introduce the world to a new young star - Shaquille Rashaun O'Neal.
The overall narrative of their careers is that Wilt and Russ were completely different. Chamberlain, an individualist focused on stats and being in the spotlight, Russell a team-oriented guy willing to sacrifice individual glory for team victories.
But it was Wilt who managed to set his personal feelings aside and think of the big picture that made the reconnection possible. Given how things ended, he was probably the one that had to make the first move anyway.
Twenty-four years after their final game against each other, Wilt and Russell were a part of the most legendary cast in a basketball commercial ever. Listen to this - Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Walton, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar letting Shaq know breaking rims is cute, but it doesn't win rings.
To make the cast of basketball legends complete, coach John Wooden was also on the set. Wanna see probably the only time in his life Shaquille O'Neal was timid and left speechless?
Everyone was ready for a chilly atmosphere, given the fact Wilt and Russell had not spoken to each other for 24 years. Bill Walton shares the moment everyone took a big sigh of relief.
“So they have this commercial and we're doing it all day and it was super fun and enjoyable. But I'm also grateful to Wilt, for having the magnanimous personality to be able to bring everybody together, and have it be an out-of-control ego-fest where everyone is angry and bitter and complaining that they don't have more.”
Bill Walton, The Icons Club
Out of all the people on that set, Chamberlain was the one to throw the first assist - probably the most important one in his life. Not long into the day, you couldn't tell the two hadn't spoken in over two decades. MacMullan shared a fascinating detail - they referred to each other by their middle names. Felton for Russell, and Norman for Wilt.
“Long before Wilt had passed, when the twin pillars of the Icons Club were building a fraternity for elite players that would succeed them, Bill Russell confided in his friend, 'You are the only person who understands how I feel.'”
Jackie MacMullan, The Icons Club