If asked to look back through the NBA’s rich history and to come up with the best individual rivalries, the answer is easily Wilt Chamberlain versus Bill Russell and Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird. However, in the case of Chamberlain and Russell, both players played the same position, which in turn made the matchups extremely compelling.
Indeed, before Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon was taking the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O’Neal to school, the league had already seen two marquee centers face off against one another repeatedly in the postseason.
As the story goes, Chamberlain normally won the head-to-head battles, but his teams on the other hand struggled mightily to defeat Russell’s Celtics. And that’s putting it lightly.
Wilt Chamberlain played for the Philadelphia Warriors (who eventually moved to San Francisco), Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers. Chamberlain’s teams competed in eight playoff series against the Boston Celtics and this is what the scorecard read:
Russell’s teams: 7-1
Chamberlain’s teams: 1-7
Wins and losses tend to have a way of shaping our perception of players. The rap on Russell was that he would do everything in his power to win and then some. As the clichés go, Bill Russell was associated with all the good ones: winning by any means necessary, winning is the only thing and he was the epitome of team basketball.
Chamberlain was perceived quite differently given his inability to match Bill Russell’s ring count despite his Goliath like stature. Wilt was often times called a loser and a player that only cared about getting his stats. People forget this now, but Michael Jordan always strived to win scoring titles, and yet no one ever truly held that against him.
Once again, it comes down to wins and losses.
But somehow, we forget that two of the greatest teams the NBA has ever seen were anchored by Wilton Norman Chamberlain. The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers posted the best ever regular season record (up to that point) by going 68-13. That team, won the NBA crown that season.
Five years later, the 1971-1972 Los Angeles Lakers surpassed the 76ers, by going 69-13. This squad is still famous today because they hold the record for most consecutive wins in NBA history. That year, the Lakers won 33 games in a row, a run that lasted two months and eventually culminated in a championship.
People often forget that Chamberlain’s teams did in fact win some titles. Part of that stems from Russell’s dominant teams, but another part of that can be attributed to his teams losing to the 1970 New York Knicks (the series made famous by Willis Reed playing in Game 7 of the NBA Finals despite a torn muscle in his right thigh) as well as being eliminated the following year by Lew Alcindor’s Milwaukee Bucks who won the 1971 NBA championship.
The Knickerbockers defeated the Lakers again in the 1973 Finals, which led to Wilt Chamberlain’s retirement. The Boston Celtics then won two more titles during the decade and then the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird era started; and just like that, Chamberlain was remembered as a one-man show.
It is worth pointing out however, that for all of Wilt’s heartbreaking playoff losses, that some would still pick him today over Abdul-Jabbar. It’s fascinating in several ways because really when we look at the former UCLA star, he was just as dominant during his era as his predecessors were.
Abdul-Jabbar often seemed to score with relative ease, scoring at least 20 points per game and shooting in the high 50 percent field goal range for all of his career save for his last three seasons. In addition, he cleaned up the glass, deterred opponents from coming into the lane with his shot blocking and also found ways to set up his teammates to score. If we look at the games (flat out dominant scorer), the championships (six) and the numbers (league’s all-time leading scorer), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not only arguably the best center ever, but possibly the game’s greatest player.
And with that said, quite often he is treated as an afterthought. As if he had always been the Robin to Magic Johnson’s Batman. The man they called Magic was as flashy as they came but he was also viewed as a winner. That word again.
His team won the 1979 NCAA championship, and the following season he was part of an NBA title run. Consequently, several fans today believe that Magic Johnson was the first and foremost reason why the Los Angeles Lakers won five rings during the 1980’s.
Magic Johnson was an integral part of the Los Angeles Lakers’ success, but we cannot ignore the fact that Kareem’s UCLA Bruins won three national championships and that teams he played for in the NBA were victorious in the Finals six times. Despite all that, for lack of a better term, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gets no love.
Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have combined for eight NBA championships, 10 MVP trophies and 32 NBA All-Star selections and yet often when discussing them, all we hear is yeah but. As odd as it sounds, one of the most decorated players in NBA history as far as individual and team accolades goes, is viewed on par with one of the league’s biggest perceived underachievers.
Once people place labels on you, they are often hard to shake, as Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki can attest. And it does make you wonder: will Kobe Bryant be remembered as having carried Shaquille O’Neal?
Because ultimately, it just seems as though the bigger and stronger ones rarely catch a break. Wilt Chamberlain once said “No one likes to root for Goliath”, and in that sense, he and the player formerly known as Lew Alcindor have a lot in common.
Perhaps it’s time that changed.