Here is the final part in our series on Bill Russell's book Second Wind Memoirs of an Opinionated Man. In this part, Russ talks about his relationship with Wilt Chamberlain.
The Celtics were a family, but it was a family bent on winning. Oddly enough, I think I shared more of my appreciation for championship basketball with my opponents, especially with those who were good enough themselves to elevate their games. Throughout my career I spent a lot of time off the court with Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Oscar Robertson. We never talked much about basketball, which in itself was a relief, and we had nothing to prove to each other, which helped us relax. We never became intimate friends, but I always enjoyed being with them because they made the game so much fun for me. I felt we shared a special kind of camaraderie, like professional soldiers. We were in the same business, had the same kinds of problems, and didn't have to be on guard around each other. Wilt Chamberlain and I carried on a friendship the entire time we played basketball together, even though the newspapers portrayed us as mortal enemies. There's a certain amount of show business in professional basketball, and the two of us were a promoter's dream. The sportswriters flogged their feverish imaginations and came up with headlines like "Big Goliath vs Little Goliath" or "The Good Guy vs The Bad Guy," and devoted hundreds of columns to the question of whether Russell was better than Chamberlain or vice versa. You'd have thought we were heavyweight boxers going at each other, because our respective teams were largely ignored. Offhand, I can't think of any two players in a team sport who have been cast as antagonists and as personifications of various theories more than Wilt and I were. Almost any argument people wanted to have could be carried on in the Russell vs Chamberlain debate, and almost any virtue and sin was imagined to be at stake. If we weren't a metaphor for something, we were at least a symbol of it. As long as we were playing, I thought Wilt and I were amazingly successful in ignoring this. We used to dismiss the controversy by laughing that it was only making both of us a lot of money. We each tried to dismiss the talk in our personal relationship, and a few people supported us in doing so. Eddie Gottlieb, the owner of the Philadelphia Warriors, used to remind Wilt that it was all hype; at least that's what Wilt would tell me. I believed this about Gottlieb, for whenever the Celtics played in Philadelphia he would scream to the newspapers in advance that I was a criminal goaltender, getting away with murder and that I had to be stopped. When we arrived in Philadelphia I'd see these headlines, and in the game itself he'd scream at the referees so violently that he had to be restrained. I always thought he was even more of a firecracker than Red until one night when he came into our locker room before a game, took me aside and said, "I assume you're not paying any attention to all that stuff about goal tending. It just helps to keep our seats filled and our flock growing." He was warm and humorous, and then he went out to the arena and in a few minutes was screaming about goal tending again like a mad man. Wilt was by far the toughest center I ever played against. He was awesome, and no matter what anyone says about his lack of team play, his teams always wound up in the playoffs staring at us. He always outscored me by huge margins - by twenty or thirty points in a game - so I could never hope to compete with him in any scoring duels any more than I could make twenty footers from outside. I couldn't allow myself to get suckered into a game within the game. I had to do whatever it took to help us win. One year Wilt averaged an incredible fifty points a game, when I was averaging sixteen or seventeen. In that same year his team averaged one hundred and twelve points a game and the Celtics one hundred and ten, so I figured if I could knock points off his average, we should win most of those games. That's what happened. As the Celtic championships began piling up, Wilt took offense at those who enjoyed labeling him a loser. They said he couldn't win the big one, as though there were some flaw or stumbling block in his character that prevented him from winning key games. This seemed to me nonsense; I think you keep winning games until you play a better team. It's that simple. I prefer to think that the Celtics were winners - champions, in fact - ans that Wilt's teams were consistently the best ones we had to defeat. In 1967, Wilt and the Philadelphia 76ers beat us, because they were better. They almost ran us off the court, and I got an instant taste of the loser syndrome. Though the Celtics had run off an unprecedented string of eight consecutive championships before 1967, the fans in Boston hooted me that summer in the streets. "What happened to you guys last year?" "All washed up, eh?" "I knew it couldn't last. You guys don't have it any more." I had to blink my eyes. Never had I felt happier that long ago I'd trained myself to discount the cheers and the boos. During that winning steak I could easily have gotten an appetite for cheers. At last I understood why Wilt had been hinting that the loser label had begun to bother him. To be bombarded with such abuse for years is enough to nettle anybody. To Wilt's credit, it never seriously damaged our respect for each other while we were playing.
I hope you enjoyed the excerpts from Bill Russell's Second Wind. Next up, I will be posting some excerpts from "Let Me Tell You a Story by Red Auerbach and John Feinstein. It is an incredibly fascinating book and I am sure you will enjoy it as much as I have. We will also be posting articles on each of the Celtics' players written by various members of the Celtics Green board in preparation for the upcoming season.
Yeah, Lex, I guess Boston is a tough town to lose in. Especially back then because they were so used to winning, losing was the exception. Unfortunately, during the 22 years after 86, the fans kind of got conditioned to losing.
Yeah, in reading this book and Tommy's book especially, I realized how hard it was for those guys back then. Playing basketball was easy compared to what they had to deal with in public opinion and the fans. Glad we have all matured somewhat, although there is still some of that stupidness going on.