NBA’s history is marked by its great rivalries, and the first one, possibly the greatest one, was the one between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. The main difference between them? Russell was always a team-first guy, doing what it takes to win, while Wilt had a reputation of chasing stats and individual accolades. They were portrayed as polar opposites, and that’s why most people don’t know that even in their playing days, the two were very close friends.
“He’d come by my house on Thanksgiving because we played Philly – Boston the next day, sleep in my bed, eat my food, go out the next day and whip my butt. And my mother would say, ‘Wilt, we shouldn’t feed Bill so well next time.‘”Wilt Chamberlain, NBA TV
With time, Wilt figured out he can play the game to empower his teammates and win titles, one in Philly and one in LA. But just because Wilt the player might have been self-centered at the beginning of his career, that doesn’t mean Wilt the man was. A story about his Warriors teammate Paul Arizin proves that. (You might want to prepare a few tissues.)
Arizin was one of the first NBA superstars. He spent his entire career with the Philadelphia Warriors, and his last three years in the NBA, Arizin played with a young Wilt Chamberlain. If you check Arizin’s stats, you’ll find a two-year gap – he served with the Marines in the Korean War. That’s the kind of guy we’re talking about here. Arizin retired and remained friendly but not particularly close with Wilt. It all changed in 1993.
At the age of 12, Paul’s granddaughter Stephanie wrote a letter to Wilt asking for an autograph. Wilt missed the letter and the Arizin’s figured that was that. Four years later, Wilt called to say he had just seen the letter and reach out to Stephanie. Unfortunately, then 16-year-old Stephanie was dying from an inoperable brain tumor. Excited to receive a phone call from the great Wilt Chamberlain, Stephanie didn’t mention her condition. Wilt would learn about that later when Stephanie’s father Mike told him.
“We lost Steph on July 30, 1997. From the time they first spoke, Wilt called Steph every Friday night for the rest of her life.”Mike Arizin, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Every Friday night, without fault, Wilt called Stephanie to check in on her and motivate her to enjoy life as much as possible. And that’s not the only thing he did. The NBA celebrated its 50th Anniversary by announcing the 50 greatest players in league history – the one where Wilt and MJ had a legendary discussion that ended in Chamberlain burning Jordan. It was a huge event, and Wilt brought Stephanie as his +1. She was in a wheelchair by then, but Wilt made sure she got everything Stephanie wanted. And she wanted one of the most difficult things in basketball.
“Wilt got her Bill Russell’s autograph – and he wasn’t signing for anyone. But of course, Wilt went over and said, ‘Russ, this is for my friend‘Jim Barnett, Warriors YT channel
There’s a difference between having an ego and being egotistical. There’s no champion in this world that doesn’t have a strong ego, an irrational belief in themselves. Wilt may have been near the top in that category, but we should not make the mistake of considering him an egotistical person because of it. The man had a big heart, and the Arizin family can vouch for that.
P.S. The reason Russell didn’t sign autographs wasn’t because he didn’t want to make time for fans. Quite the contrary.