Wilt, Russell, Greatness and Greatness

When it comes to defining a great player, or the greatest player, the definition comes in layers. There is no one overarching or defining element to one’s game that propels a player into the pantheon of greatness. Disparate leagues and era-specific styles change the definition every decade and with every generation of new players.

In the case of the 1960 dominant players and teams, the infamous argument comes down to two players – Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

Chamberlain’s two championships versus Russell’s eleven championships and Chamberlain’s career 30.1 PPG and 22.9 RPG versus Russell’s career 15.1 RPG and 22.5 PPG. The head-to-head stats of these two players go on for pages.

The debate boils down to a convoluted, multi-layered criterion. Quantifiable guidelines try to crunch the numbers of rings, analytics, and individual statistics. These are all viable ways to determine greatness, but they come with caveats. Statistics do not define narrative and they do not calculate team chemistry.

Chamberlain and Russell had a different impact on their respective teams, and both legacies are solidified. However, Russell is the superior player by a hair due to his innate understanding of the game; the perfect combination of initiating altruistic teamwork and clutching championships personifies the game of basketball.

Wilt could be Russell, but Russell could never be Wilt. Wilt’s athleticism propelled him to score 50.4 PPG off 72.7% FG in the 1961-1962 season and 27.2 RPG in the 1960-1961 season. Additionally, Chamberlain set a record by a center with most assists in a single season, racking 8.6 assists a game in a single season. Pure dominance.

There is no doubt Chamberlain revolutionized basketball and transcended the game itself, changing rules regarding court dimensions, foul lines, and offensive basket interferences.

“Wilt the Stilt” is a peerless powerhouse in a league of his own, a true freak-of-nature who statistically dominated every facet of the game. His offensive game is unparalleled just as Russell’s defense is unmatched. However, these statistics are inherently selfish.

Wilt Chamberlain merely garnered his assist numbers to pad his stats and prove naysayers that he could not pass. His numbers are not a perfect representation of the inherent values of what they are supposed to represent.

As commanding as Wilt was, the numbers are not circumstantial to the team. The argument can easily be flipped to explain greatness personified. Fair enough. But basketball is a team sport.

Russell understood the game inside and out. He was never physically dominant to sway and revolve an entire offense around him, but his court vision was unmatched. He made every player on his team better.

Their styles were black and white, each player bringing eclectic talents to the floor. Wilt dominated the paint, grabbed an infinite amount of rebounds, and scored out of his mind. Russell glided down the floor like a guard, passed to cutters for an easy lay-up, and became an unrivaled shot blocker.

In their respective gameplay – offense vs. defense – Wilt shined more on paper due to his staggering numbers from the offensive side. However, it is an absolute myth to suggest that Russell could not play offense. Russell understood the chemistry on the floor.

Although the box scores may not show it, Russell used his teammates as an offensive conduit, commanding the floor like a point guard. Unselfish, altruistic, and teamwork are words to describe the Celtics legend. Dominant, number-driven, and power are words to describe Chamberlain. Russell merely saved his best games for the playoffs.  And this is merely NOT because Russell was surrounded by significantly better players.

Many analysts and fans will argue that Wilt had no option but to dominate every game by himself because of his lack of teammates. The “Russell always had a better team” is somewhat mythologized.

The only real and valid argument is that Russell had Red Auerbach as the Celtics head coach. Wilt only struggled with teammates during his initial seasons with the Warriors, but still had All-Star caliber players – Tom Gola and Paul Arizin – to work with. Afterwards, however, Wilt played with revered, stand-alone legends: Hal Greer, Chet Walker, and Luscious Jackson on the 76ers and Elgin Baylor and Jerry West on the Lakers.

Bill Russell, granted, played with Frank Ramsey, Bob Cousey, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and Bill Sharman. Amidst the 1963-1965 seasons, Ramsey, Cousey, and Sharman retired, leaving Russell with no first-team All-NBA players in the 1964 playoffs. He still managed to beat Chamberlain and friends in the 1964 Finals. Both teams were fully capable of winning championships, but Russell outshined Chamberlain in clutch moments. This is why Russell puts everything on the line.

This is why he went 10-0 in every Game 7 he played in his playoff career. Wilt went 4-5. Wilt shines on paper from his regular season numbers, but when it came time to clutch a series or a ring, Chamberlain shied from the challenge while Russell thrived in those situations.

When Wilt’s numbers would go down, Russell’s would go up. Wilt averaged 22.5 points, 24.5 rebounds, and 4.2 assists in his playoff career. Russell averaged 16.2 points, 24.9 rebounds, and 4.7 assists.

Russell stepped up his game in the playoffs while Chamberlain’s game wrinkled. Chamberlain’s regular season numbers shroud his gun-shy mentality when it came to the playoffs.

There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to Wilt Chamberlain’s achievements. A subsection for many other players is blown up and solely dedicated to Chamberlain’s accolades. Perhaps this is the epitome of his career: personal accomplishments.

Russell, although not individually dominant as Chamberlain, still managed to perform at a higher level in the playoffs and won nine more championships than Chamberlain.

When it comes down to the basics of a sport, it is about winning. Chamberlain enjoyed winning. Russell lived and breathed winning. The competitive nature, an inherently intangible barometer in the analytical world, is truly the sign of greatness.

Chamberlain dominated by himself while Russell dominated alongside his team. This is why he has nine more rings.

But aside from Russell’s performance, Russell also dealt with racism in Boston, hearing his own fans chant “n*****” at the Celtics court. Chamberlain never dealt with direct racial issues in Los Angeles or Philadelphia. Despite the social barrier Russell had to penetrate, the perennial All-Star emerged from the discriminatory city of Boston and is now hailed as one of the greatest of all time. Chamberlain never overcame such direct adversity in Philadelphia or Los Angeles and was simply revered as an individual entity. Both players transgressed racial boundaries, but, again, Russell hurdled confrontational racism. Chamberlain and Russell inured racial discrimination but differed on the severity scale.

Both legendary players transcended the game, whether it be changing rules and regulations or winning championships in the double-digits, and there is no doubt that both belong in the pantheon of greatness.