Larry and Magic might’ve saved the league, but Bill and Wilt made it. Without them, there would not be anything to save. Two things grow a sport in popularity – a juggernaut everyone is chasing and a great rivalry. The 1960s had both. Everyone was trying to beat Bill’s Celtics, and his personal rivalry with Wilt made their matchups a must-see battle.
They battled on the court and openly criticized each other about their game, but Wilt and Russ respected and appreciated each other as no one else could. Like MJ and Chuck or Carmelo and LeBron, there are not many people who can relate to being a basketball superstar. That makes the list of people that can become your friend and understand what you’re going through very short. When asked about Wilt being misunderstood, Russell made a small but crucial distinction.
I like to think of it not as being misunderstood, but not understood. But there’s no reason anyone should understand him (because they can’t be and see the world from where he stood.)Bill Russell, Charlie Rose (via Universe Galaxy)
Russell could. So no wonder Bill would spend the night at Wilts the night before the game in Philly. It’s only natural they were friends. That friendship only grew after their playing days were over. Bill shared an intimate moment he had with Wilt’s nephews.
After he died, I went to his memorial service in Los Angeles. His nephews came up to me and said ‘I think I want to tell you this. I was cleaning up my uncle’s desk, and he had a stack of notes of people he’s gonna call. Your name was on the top of the list.’ He would call and we would rant and rave about the cosmos.Bill Russell, Charlie Rose (via Universe Galaxy)
Unfortunately, Wilt never made that call or any other from that list. Russell shared he lost something special with Wilt passing by. Charlie Rose went down the lane of facing his mortality, but Bill dismissed that. Because of their rivalry, Wilt was a big part of Bill’s identity. Almost every fan interaction Russell had in his life started with mentioning Wilt Chamberlain. They were joined at the hip in all our minds. It would always end up with the most predictable conversation – who’s better?
I must’ve heard it, without exaggeration, 50,000 times. ‘I watched you on Sunday television,’ and people made judgment on which one they thought was the best. I never got into who was the best [with Wilt]. In fact, that was the one thing he and I, over a thousand conversations, never discussed.Bill Russell, Charlie Rose (via Universe Galaxy)
I’m sure they threw jabs at each other all the time. But I don’t doubt they never had an actual discussion about who was the better player. Both guys had more than enough conversations and heard opinions on that topic. They understood basketball gave them a lot, but there was a lot more to them and their lives than the game. Russell summed it up best himself.