When Chamberlain and Russell Collided John Taylor writes about the formative days of the National Basketball Associaton in The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball.
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When Chamberlain and Russell Collided

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When Chamberlain and Russell Collided

When Chamberlain and Russell Collided

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Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were the greatest talents of their time in modern basketball. In the late 1950s and '60s, they were the most productive, talked about, celebrated and controversial players in a game that was beginning to take the world stage. Mr. Chamberlain, who was often called the most imposing athletic presence in history, was the offensive machine, and once famously scored 100 points against the New York Knicks. Mr. Russell was considered the wily soul of defense, the one man who could reliably knock away a Chamberlain shot. He brought the Boston Celtics 11 championships. John Taylor has written a book about the force these two contenders exerted on the game that they helped to make famous. It's called "The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball." John Taylor joins us in our studios.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JOHN TAYLOR (Author, "The Rivalry"): My pleasure.

SIMON: And your book actually takes us back to a time when normal-sized human beings played basketball.

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, I start actually back in the '40s and in the early to mid-50s when the game was dominated by white players. The standard shot was the two-handed set shot. It was a game and it was a league that was struggling very much until the late '50s when Bill Russell and then a couple years later Wilt Chamberlain both joined the NBA and within a 10-year period transformed it into a major league and became, really, outside of boxing, the first black superstar athletes the country'd ever seen.

SIMON: The two of them--take them back to their college years. Bill Russell, University of San Francisco, very famously, and Wilt Chamberlain was at Kansas.

Mr. TAYLOR: These two players were such a remarkable study in contrast. Chamberlain was considered an amazing talent when he was 12 years old and 6' tall. By the time he was in high school, he was the subject of national sport magazines, when he was pursued by more than 200 colleges. When he actually finally went to the University of Kansas, Jimmy Breslin wrote an article saying, `Will Wilt Chamberlain ruin basketball?' Bill Russell, on the other hand...

SIMON: I mean, the sensation was that he was this kind of King Konglike figure. He could put the basketball through the basket.

Mr. TAYLOR: That's right. All he had to do was stand under the basket, take the pass and drop the ball in. But in contrast to that, Russell was very awkward as an adolescent, he was a late bloomer, he almost didn't make it onto the varsity basketball team out in Oakland, and he was headed for a career as a welder in a shipyard when on his last game in high school he was spotted by a talent scout for the University of San Francisco who'd actually gone there to watch someone else. So when this thing came along, he realized this was his one chance and he was going to do everything he could to make the most of it. And I'm really convinced that that's sort of what gave him a kind of a determination and a focus and a will to achieve and win that Chamberlain, who'd just been, you know, lavished with praise and treated like a god from the earliest age, never had.

SIMON: What was it like when these two men began to play each other? First time they went on a basketball court--because each of them were accustomed to being the dominant player on a court.

Mr. TAYLOR: Neither had ever really been seriously challenged as a basketball player until they faced the other, and Chamberlain, the first time he faced Russell, he was completely flummoxed, and for the first time in his life he could not score at will. Russell was actually blocking his shots, which was something that had never happened to him, and, as a result, he ended up trying to score with hook shots, so not only did they change the way, you know, the game was played, they changed the way each other played.

SIMON: I want to get you to talk about the famous last game where Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were on the same court. This was 1969, seventh game, championship, Russell, Celtics. Chamberlain, at that point, was on the Lakers.

Mr. TAYLOR: The interesting thing about the rivalry was that it was this epic struggle that went on for 10 years and it built up into this incredible climactic showdown and it came down to the last few minutes of that game when Wilt Chamberlain hurt his knee and asked to be taken out of the game. Everyone, I think it's safe to say, was appalled by it. This seemed to people to just kind of sum up everything about the rivalry between Chamberlain and Russell, that Chamberlain just didn't have this commitment to winning that Russell had always had. But with Chamberlain sitting on the bench, the Lakers had been behind the entire game, but then they began to narrow the gap, and they got closer and closer, and it looked like they were playing better with Chamberlain out.

At that point, Chamberlain decided his knee was better, and he wanted to go back in. And so his coach, Butch van Breda Kolff, had a decision to make. He decided in the final minutes of the game to keep Chamberlain out. He thought that they had a better chance of winning with Chamberlain out. They lost--with Chamberlain sitting on the bench, they lost by two points and Chamberlain was furious. But Russell was also very, very critical of Chamberlain. It had been--he had not told anyone at the time but that was his last game. He'd decided he wanted to retire and he wanted to go out playing Chamberlain, he wanted to beat Chamberlain fair and square, and he felt like by Chamberlain taking himself out, he had suddenly deprived Russell of, you know, really enjoying his last game, and so he was very publicly critical. He just felt that Chamberlain was completely unsportsmanlike, and these two guys suddenly turned into very, very bitter enemies, and did not speak for 20 years after that.

SIMON: Wilt Chamberlain died in October of 1999. And Bill Russell flew to his funeral and spoke very movingly.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, I think it was only after Chamberlain died that Russell realized how much Chamberlain had meant to him as a player, as a competitor, but also as a soul mate. I mean, they went through a lot, they changed the way the game was played, they defined each other. In his comments at the memorial service, he said that they were going to be bound together in eternity.

SIMON: John Taylor. His new book is "The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball."

Mr. Taylor, thanks very much.

Mr. TAYLOR: My pleasure.

SIMON: And you can read about the night of the first Russell-Chamberlain face-off on our Web site, npr.org.

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