Russ Meets Wilt, October 14, 1959

[Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell went head to head for the first time on October 14, 1959. This fateful first was part of a preseason NBA doubleheader hosted by the Minneapolis Lakers in their ongoing desperation to raise some fast cash. Here’s the story behind this memorable doubleheader, dubbed not-so-modestly “A Sports Spectacular” and “the Greatest Basketball Extravaganza in Sports History.” The backstory comes from the popular broadcaster-turned-newspaper columnist Cedric Adams, writing in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Afterwards, in italics, there’s a brief synopsis of the game and the sports spectacular.]

The two centers of attention

Two big firsts we get in Minneapolis Wednesday, but they came the hard way. This is the saga of the $81,000 needed to refurbish the Minneapolis Armory to make it into a major league basketball playing site. The Lakers’ career has been a rocky one filled with ups and downs and profits and losses. Basketball fans and local capitalists have grown a bit weary of the constant touch that’s been put on to keep Minneapolis a basketball center in the country. 

Lakers management knew this, so they knuckled down to some hard thinking and, at long last, came up with a pretty sound offering come Wednesday night—a basketball spectacular, which should warm the hearts of sports fans and at the same time ring a merry tune at the turnstiles. When you see Wilt the Stilt pitted against Bill Russell of the Celtics, the Lakers playing the Detroit Pistons, and Ingemar Johansson, the new world’s heavyweight champion, tossed in for dessert, you have the blue plate special in anybody’s ordering.

It wasn’t easy to come by. The Laker management felt that it’d be a cinch to sell “corporate” tickets at $100 a seat for the big night. And it was, strangely enough. Then came the scaling of the rest of the house. If the seats were offered at $10 apiece, that should be a pretty good bargain when you consider you’re going to see two basketball games with two of the nation’s top stars, four of the country’s top teams, plus the first personal appearance of the new Swedish heavyweight champ doing a song or dance. 

But that wasn’t the first thought of the promoters. The initial gimmick was to have the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra appear at the armory for a white tie-and-tails deal with all the luster of a Hollywood premiere. That gained considerable momentum until some of the board members of the symphony failed to see this mixture a basketball and Bach. Just a little below the dignity of the symphony, they reasoned, so that was nixed.

Why not fly in a complete floor show from one of the top gambling spots in Las Vegas, the management asked itself? Splendid, was the reply. Western Airlines agreed, Las Vegas was willing. But AGVA, the performers’ union, objected. There were contract clauses that wouldn’t permit this kind of appearance. Another wonderful idea out the window.

Next up was to have top stars from every field of athletics—baseball, golf, swimming, skating, boxing. Boxing! There is an idea all by itself, said the Laker management. How about Ingemar Johansson? Bob Short, Laker president, got on the telephone to Sweden immediately. Ingemar was going to be in Hollywood about that time making a picture. Could he be released for one day to make a personal appearance in Minneapolis? It took exactly 22 telephone calls from Minneapolis to Sweden to Hollywood to New York to finalize the appearance. No radio appearances, no television interviews, no press conferences, said his agent. If that holds, the guy will be a sheltered violet while he’s here. What will he do? Will he sing, will he dance? Who knows, so far!

Getting together the Philadelphia Warriors and the Boston Celtics was no push-over. Short knew that if he could get the teams to play one game, it would be the first clash of Chamberlain vs. Russell. Fans have thirsted for that for a long time. Short got Walter Brown of the Boston club on the telephone. If it’s all right with Gottlieb, it’s all right with me, said he. Short then called Gottlieb, who was in Switzerland at the time. The connection was bad, but from what Gottlieb got out of Short’s conversation, it sounded all right with him. It if it was okay with Brown, it was okay with him. The deal was set.

When Ned Irish of Madison Square Garden heard of the deal, he blew his stack. He wanted the two clubs for a Garden appearance at $25 a seat. Figured that one out with an 18,000 capacity [$450,00]. If Irish could do that in New York, Short felt, he could scale the armory with the first four rows at the $100 corporate seats, the next row at two for $75, the next at two for $50, the next at two for $25, and the remainder of the armory at $10 seats on the main floor starting in the 10th row in all the balcony locations, which means all the good seats on other side of the arena . . .

Treatment of Ingemar in America is typified by the visit of Short and Phil Jason, Short’s press agent, when they called on the champ in Detroit, Mich. He was housed in the mansion of a Detroit industrialist. The joint was blocked off by police cars for two blocks and the security was almost as tight as that provided Khrushchev. And the same thing has been ordered for here. The Swedish consul general will be host to a pregame dinner and reception for him with the $100 ticket holders as special guests. 

Ingemar is scheduled to arrive here about 4:30 on the afternoon of the game. Short’s big worry now is, what if his plane were grounded en route? If he does get here, rather than watch him in a Swedish folk dance or listen to him do a song with some pretty flicka, I’d like to watch him go a couple of rounds with Auggie Ratner or Ernie Fliegel. I’d be willing to second either one of them. Anyway, Wednesday looks like a big night in the old hometown.

[The big night turned out to be mostly a big bust. Bill Russell arrived feeling under the weather. But the evening’s co-center of attention dutifully trotted out in Celtic green for the nightcap of the doubleheader. When he and the others reached the floor, their noses and lacrimal glands were overwhelmed by the sharp sensory rush of rubbing alcohol. The arena’s brand-new basketball floor had just arrived from the manufacturer, which, as a final loving flourish, had oiled down the floorboards to make the ultimate shiny first impression. The oil turned the first half of the opener between Detroit and Minneapolis into a comic and at-times nearly tragic slip-a-thon. Workmen trotted out at halftime to scrub down the floorboards with industrial-strength rubbing alcohol and clear the oil. It helped, but all players were advised to watch their Chuck Taylors. That included Minneapolis’ second-year star Elgin Baylor, who was making his NBA preseason debut for the season. 

Making matter worse for Short and the Lakers, the announced crowd for the “Greatest Basketball Extravaganza in Sports History” came to just 3,200 in the old, feeble facility, capacity 5,500. “We made expenses for the night all right, but didn’t make much toward the $80,000 cost to refurbish the Armory,“ Short admitted afterwards. 

What about Ingemar Johnansson? He came, he saw, he conquered. He also told a reporter, against his agent’s orders, “I think I could win in Minneapolis as well as any other town, and I think I can beat Floyd Paterson again if I get the same chances.” The reporter jotted it down, whatever it meant, like he was witness to breaking news.

Ingemar had nothing to say for the record about the two young giants battling on the basketball floor. But, according to most onlookers, Wilt was the more impressive. He finished with 26 points, 19 rebounds, and nine blocked shots to Russell’s 16 points (many oddly coming from the perimeter), 17 rebounds, and five blocks. But, as a sign of things mostly to come, Boston rallied to win the game, 103-98, and Wilt sat around afterwards talking to a reporter trying to keep things real. “But this is just exhibition; remember the season hasn’t started yet.”]

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