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Tuesday, October 17, 2023

October 17, 2023: Basketball Stories: Chamberlain and Russell

[With a new NBA season upon us, a series AmericanStudying some of basketball’s many interesting figures, stories, and debates. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, debates, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]

On a clear distinction between two iconic greats—and why it’s not quite so clear as that.

Between 1956 (when Bill Russell was drafted by the Boston Celtics; Wilt Chamberlain was officially drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors three years later) and 1973 (when Chamberlain finished his last season with the Los Angeles Lakers; Russell had ended his playing career with the Celtics four years earlier), the National Basketball Association might as well have been renamed the Russell-Chamberlain Association. Russell and the Celtics won 11 NBA titles in those 18 years (1957, 1959-66, and 1968-69), while Chamberlain and his teams won 2 (with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967 and the Lakers in 1972). The discrepancy between those two championship totals, and the fact that Russell’s teams often beat Chamberlain’s in the playoffs en route to their titles (the Celtics were 7-1 in playoff series against Chamberlain teams), has led many NBA fans and basketball pundits to opine that Russell clearly got the best of this truly unique rivalry. But while such debates are fun for fans and historians alike, the truth is that these are two of the all-time great NBA players, and there must be room in any account of the sport for acknowledging and engaging with both men’s achievements and successes.

Those on-court achievements are the most important part of Russell and Chamberlain’s careers and legacies—but if we turn our attention to their lives and personalities off the court, it would be difficult to imagine a more contrasting pair. Russell was (and has largely remained in the decades since his retirement) notoriously prickly and private, not only with the media but with fans and the public more generally, as illustrated (if in a particularly divisive way) by his description of Boston as a “flea market of racism” and his initial desire to have his jersey retired in an empty Boston Garden. Chamberlain was (and largely remained until his 1999 death) famously gregarious and social, as exemplified (if in a particularly controversial way) by his claim (in his 1991 autobiography A View from Above) that he had slept with roughly 20,000 women in his life. Those differences might help explain why Chamberlain only coached for a year (with the San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association), while Russell not only coached the Celtics for the final four years of his playing career (becoming one of the first African American coaches in professional sports in the process), but went on to coach two other teams in the next two decades (the Seattle Supersonics in the mid-1970s and the Sacramento Kings in the late 1980s).

Yet I would argue that those seemingly divergent details and lives also reveal a similar influence and factor for both men. In the interview at that last hyperlink, Russell argues that his time as the Celtics’ player-coach had nothing to do with race or racial progress; yet as his comments on Boston and its fans reflect, Russell has consistently become—whatever his own overall goals—a lightning rod of racial attitudes and debates in both the city and the sport. For his side, Chamberlain denounced the Black Panthers and openly supported Richard Nixon in both 1968 and 1972, separating himself very distinctly from African American social movements of the era; yet from his college days at the University of Kansas on through every subsequent stage of his career and life, Chamberlain both experienced direct instances of racism and was defined as a stereotypical black man (never more so than in the aftermath of his sexual claims). Neither of these two titans of the sport can or should be reduced to his race, but neither is it possible to separate them from that aspect of their identity, even when each has in some ways expressed a desire for such separation. Indeed, Russell and Chamberlain’s careers marked a significant step in the NBA’s continued evolution toward being the most centrally African American sports league and community in America—one more reason to remember their iconic presences and legacies.

Next bball story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share?

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