Watching Bill Russell get up from a chair was a little like watching an erector set unfold section by section until he reached his full 6 feet, 9 inches.
Listening to him laugh was hearing a cackle, a loud, deep-throated cackle that bounced off the walls of a room. It was a sincere sound that sent the message that one of basketball’s greatest players was enjoying himself.
One time, though, Russell did not laugh. He didn’t even smile. It was the first time he confronted Wilt Chamberlain on the court because as awesome as Bill Russell was, Wilt Chamberlain at 7-foot-2, was five inches taller.
Russell considered the challenge and devised a strategy. He would never play Chamberlain the same way twice. Sometimes he fronted Wilt. Sometimes, he played behind Wilt. Sometimes, he challenged the bigger man. Sometimes, he backed off. It was like a study guide in Basketball 101: How to cope with a man bigger than you.
Somehow, it worked. Russell remembered how he and Chamberlain called each other by their middle names – Felton for Russell, Norman for Chamberlain. When he recalled that bit of trivia, Russell’s cackle filled the room again.
Then there were the Thanksgivings they spent together. Chamberlain lamented that Russell ate his food, slept in his bed and then went out and whipped him on the court.
They played 94 games against each other. Chamberlain averaged 29.9 points and Russell 14.2. Russell’s Celtics held a 57-37 edge on Chamberlain’s teams.
The individual career numbers favor Chamberlain, the only man to ever score 100 points in a game. He won seven scoring titles. Russell won none. Wilt won 11 rebounding titles to four for Russell. They were close on MVPs, five for Chamberlain and four for Russell
But when it came to championships there was no comparison. Russell owned 11 rings from 13 NBA seasons. Chamberlain won two. They met in the playoffs eight times and Russell won seven of those series.
Chamberlain relied on sheer strength of an imposing physique. Russell, impressive enough physically, demonstrated basketball smarts, a quality recognized early on by Celtics coach Red Auerbach.
When Auerbach retired in 1966, he turned the team over to Russell, making him player-coach, the first Black man named to coach a team in any of the four major sports. It was a monumental moment in civil rights in America, a cause Russell championed all his life.