Wilt vs. Russell: The Rivalry Begins

[This article appeared in Popular Library’s 1960 Basketball Yearbook under the headline: Can Russell Stop Wilt “The Stilt”? The headline is a little misleading. This story, written by the great New York Post sportswriter Milton Gross, is really about Wilt’s entry into the NBA. The old pros had never seen anything like this kid, with his dominating height and game-changing athleticism. Many conceded that Wilt entered the league as a better player than retired NBA icon George Mikan in his prime. 

All of this awe and anxiety led to the obvious question: Can Bill Russell stop this giant force of nature named Wilt Chamberlain? Or, as the article’s subhead laid out the matter, “It’ll be an epic battle of the skyscrapers when the 6-10 immovable defender of the Celtics meets the 7-2 irresistible scorer of the Warriors.”

And so, the Great Rivalry was born in the weeks leading up to the NBA’s 1959-60 season. As Boston’s Red Auerbach told reporters a little later in a newspaper column that we’ll run tomorrow, “I’ll say this: some of the most memorable man-to-man engagements you sportswriters have ever seen will occur anytime when Bill Russell plays Wilt Chamberlain.” Truer words were never spoken.]

When Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain was unveiled last summer against a backdrop of the NBA stars against whom the seven-footer will play this winter, only one word described him: Fantastic. 

The word, in fact, was supplied by Adolph Schayes, the pro basketball league’s perennial all-star. “I don’t know what’s going to become of this game with Chamberlain in it,” said the Syracuse warhorse. “This guy is just fantastic. 

“Basketball will have to have a new concept,” said Neil Johnston, who will be Wilt’s coach on the Philadelphia Warriors. “Chamberlain is everything that Bill Russell is and more.”

“He’s pretty good for the kind of playing he’s done,” said Bob Cousy. “What’ll he be when he learns a few more things about this game?”

In short, Chamberlain dominated the Maurice Stokes benefit game at Kutsher’s Country Club in Monticello, N.Y. last Aug 19. He was named the most valuable  player in the 85-61 victory that the All-Stars, coached by Fuzzy Levane of the Knicks, scored over Red Auerbach’s All-Stars featuring Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, and Frank Ramsey of his own NBA champions. Chamberlain scored 20 points, playing less than half the time, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked 10 shots. 

Two of the shots blocked were particularly noteworthy. Wilt was under the defensive basket alone. Down came Cousy, Ramsey, and Guy Sparrow of the Warriors. Cousy faked to Sparrow, but passed to Ramsey, who leaped for a shot. Only Chamberlain leaped with him and batted the shot into Sparrow’s hands. Sparrow went up for a shot, and again Chamberlain threw his arm aloft and deflected the try. 

“Now I know,” said Ramsey later, “how the other teams had to feel when they found Russell batting the ball down their throats.”

A comparison between Chamberlain and Bill Russell is inevitable. The 1,300 fans [at Kutsher’s], as well as the professionals who have played against the Celtics’ fabulous Russell and must face Chamberlain this winter, give The Stilt the edge.

“Chamberlain’s much better than Russell because of the many things he can do,” said Red Kerr of Syracuse. “He’s just as good or better on blocking shots and he can get the points for them. When he learns a little more about boxing out under the boards, he’ll be rebounding just as well, if not better.”

“Potentially, I’d have to say Chamberlain’s got to have the nod,” said Cousy. “He’s never played against the pros and he can do so much already. He shoots so much better than Bill, but this is a challenge for Russell and he’s always been able to meet all challenges.”

“It’s not fair trying to compare these two as incoming pros,” said Auerbach, who was asked to compare Chamberlain with Russell when he joined the Celtics from San Francisco. “Wilt’s been kicking around in pretty good company for a couple of years, and Russell came to us right from college without even having seen a pro game, much less playing in one.”

Nevertheless, the comparison must be made, and I must cast a vote for Chamberlain. I have watched Chamberlain from his sophomore year at Kansas, which he left last year to join the Harlem Globetrotters. He was astonishing then. He is more astonishing now. 

He seems to have grown, if that is possible. His forearms are larger, his body bigger, his face and carriage more mature. He now weighs 258 pounds and carries it as lightly as a ballet dancer. He can heft 358 pounds in weight-lifting, and it seemed last night that he could throw some of the bigger musclemen of the NBA around the floor, too. 

Defending against 6-feet-11 Walter Dukes of Detroit, Chamberlain blocked hook shot after hook shot. Jim Loscutoff of the Celtics, Auerbach’s ax-man, was made to look puny by comparison. “He can take it pretty good,” said Jungle Jim. “I was surprised.”

“I’m learning to use my elbows more and more,” said Chamberlain, who knows that his first season in the NBA will leave him with welts all over his body. “I think I’ll be able to handle myself.”

This must be filed in the department of understatement. Chamberlain’s a Goliath. Without effort, he is able to jump so high that his elbow reached the plane of the basket. His large hands are so dexterous that he can handle the basketball in either one of them. He is a track man, who can run with a fast break up the floor. He also has a variety of shots, which makes Russell’s scoring potential a poor second. 

“He’ll get the ball for Philadelphia and that’s what they’ve needed,” said Loscutoff. 

“He’s going to score points for them,” said Ramsey. 

“I sure hope so,” said Eddie Gottlieb, owner of the Warriors. “I’m paying him enough money to score for us. I signed him without even knowing if he could shoot.”

“You think maybe I’ll be able to get some more money out of him if I prove it?” joked Chamberlain. 

A couple of other pros don’t quite appreciate Chamberlain’s talent or sense of humor. Said Al Bianchi to teammate Larry Costello of Syracuse, both mere six-footers. “Who needs him in the league? What’s going to happen to us little guys? With him in there goaltending, we’ll never be able to get a layup.”

The NBA’s semi-official contact with Chamberlain left other players with a hangover, too. There is a professionals’ appreciation of having worked with an artist and the pleasant recollection of the fun it was. There is also the shuddering recollection that the next time it will be for blood. 

Adolph Schayes, for instance, told a story in the aftermath of Chamberlain’s unveiling as a serious pro. “I was just out of college,” said the former NYU star who became one of the top performers in the NBA, “and I felt I was a big man. I was going against George Mikan for the first time. I asked around, what about him?

“One guy,” said Schayes, “told me he always uses the same spot in the pivot. Another guy told me he always shoots from his right. I concluded then I knew what I’d do to handle big George: I’d beat him to that spot. I’d play him to his right. I’d box him out under the boards. I did all that—and I held him to 44 points.”

Schayes’ anecdote only serves to point up the awe that Chamberlain engendered. The league’s best played with and against Wilt, and not one of them failed to marvel at Chamberlain’s ability and his unlimited potential. 

“Do you think,” somebody asked Detroit’s 6-feet-9 Larry Foust, “Chamberlain can make the league?”  

“Make the league?” Foust repeated. “He will be the MAKING of it.”

At another point it was suggested to Bob Cousy that he’d have to begin worrying about Wilt. 

“Not me,” said Cousy. “Let Loscutoff worry about him. That’s what Jungle Jim’s being paid for.”

Behind the jesting, however, was serious concern, and it was reflected in an incident which took place during the exhibition. Chamberlain had blocked shots by Loscutoff, Walter Dukes, Frank Ramsey, and Guy Sparrow. I was sitting on the bench with former NBA referee Lou Eisenstein during one such juncture when he remarked: “There’ll be plenty of arguments about goaltending this winter. “

Just at that stage, Feets Broudy, basketball’s unofficial ambassador and the Philly Warriors’ coach without portfolio, came by. “Ramsey was just telling Cousy,” said Feets, “’we’d better start yelling about goaltending now or we’ll have trouble getting them to do anything after the season starts.’”

It’s not only the little men who must worry. Guys such as Cousy and Ramsey must alter their style of shooting to evade Chamberlain’s octopus defense. But when 6-feet-11 Walter Dukes takes a deep hook shot and the ball is picked out of the air or deflected by Chamberlain, everybody in the league must be prepared to change their style when opposing Wilt. 

That even goes for his own teammates. On offense, The Stilt has all the standard moves, speed, dexterity, and accuracy. However, he also introduces a variety of volleyball to basketball. On two occasions, shots by his teammates might have found the basket. But Chamberlain took no chances. He leaped high, sort of short-stopped the ball in midair, and guided it into the hoop as though the ball had been passed to him. 

“I don’t know what we’ll have to do to nullify him,” said Jack Twyman, the Cincinnati star. “He’ll have to be boxed out, of course, and I imagine somebody’ll have to try to belt him around for a while, but he’s got so much. I don’t know if he can be cut down to size.”

Chamberlain, of course, anticipates the hatchet men of the league trying to chop him down. The night before the game, Wilt sat watching Neil Johnston and Loscutoff participating in a square dance with their wives.

“So that’s Jungle Jim, huh?” said Chamberlain, then, “Hey, look at that cat. He’s even using his elbows on the dance floor.” Wilt didn’t seem worried. 

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