The personal duel in American professional team sports is largely a thing of the past. This is true because athletes have learned that victory most often follows the subordination of individual talent to a cooperative effort. In basketball, a highly fluid game in which players constantly exchange assignments, it is perhaps truest of all. And yet, occasionally, two players appear whose skills are so similar and on whom their teammates count so greatly that a meeting of the teams becomes the occasion for a man-to-man battle.
Two such are the Boston Celtics' Bill Russell and the Philadelphia Warriors' Wilt Chamberlain, whose teams met last Saturday night in the Boston Garden before a tense, chattering crowd in a game that commanded the interest of basketball buffs all over the nation.
Russell is a lithe, graceful athlete who stands a shade under 6 feet 10 inches tall and moves with the ease of a man a foot shorter. He has been a professional for three years now, after leading the University of San Francisco to two national collegiate titles, the U.S. to victory in the Olympic Games in Melbourne and the Celtics to two world championships. On the Celtics, surrounded by many of the finest shooters (Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey) and playmakers (Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones) in basketball, he has two chief functions: first, to harass the opposition by blocking their shots and intimidating them by his presence when they think of shooting, and, second, to capture rebounds off the backboards to start Boston's fast-breaking attack. He has filled this difficult role so well since his arrival that Boston has become the best team ever assembled.
Chamberlain, slender of leg and thigh but powerfully muscled in arms and shoulders, is about three inches taller than Russell. After three highly successful years of basketball at Kansas University, he became impatient to capitalize on his deserved reputation and quit school for an extremely lucrative season with the Harlem Globetrotters. This is his first year with the Warriors, where his is an even more demanding assignment than Russell's. Aside from the fine shooting of Paul Arizin and the excellent playmaking of Guy Rodgers, the Warriors cannot support him in the style to which Russell is accustomed. If Philadelphia is to beat the better teams in the pro league, he must do both of Russell's jobs, on defense and rebounding, and also score a great many points himself. In the first few games of the season, against other teams, he did just that, and Philadelphia won. And as the hour approached for the game with Boston there were experts who were certain he would also score enough points against Russell to turn the trick again.
November 16, 1959
The experts were wrong. What the duel proved, chiefly, is that against Russell, Chamberlain cannot get away with the few simple offensive moves he has found so effective against lesser men. Every time he tried to use his chief weapon, a fall-away jump shot, Russell went up with him; Russell's large hand flicked away at his vision, slapped at the ball, once blocked it outright—a shocking experience for Wilt Chamberlain. All told, in this man-to-man situation Chamberlain hit exactly four baskets; the rest of his 30 points were made on tip-ins and a few dunk shots, in which, free of Russell, he stuffed the ball into the basket from above it. He took 38 shots, twice as many as Russell and more than anyone else on both teams. In the second half, obviously driven to extreme measures by Russell's tenacity, he tried more hook shots than he had in all his previous games—which is just what Russell wanted him to do because the hook is a difficult and unnatural maneuver. Chamberlain scorned it through his college days and has rarely practiced it since, on the theory that he hasn't needed it. Against Russell, clearly, he needs it. But he threw it with his wrist instead of a straight arm, and from a flat-footed stance. Not one went in. On rebounds he was repeatedly kept out of position by Russell and Tom Heinsohn, and only his height and jumping ability won him 28 to Russell's 35.
Interestingly enough, Russell, spurred by Chamberlain's offensive ability, scored 22 points, hooking with both hands very effectively and hitting eight consecutive free throws.
For the 14,000 present at the Garden, the occasion was turned into a double feature by Boston's Bob Cousy, who evidently had not been told what the big attraction was supposed to be. In any event, he dominated the game as he has so often done in recent years—though without adequate recognition, simply because we have all come to take this incredible athlete for granted. Last Saturday, after nine years as a professional, Cousy displayed a dozen sleight-of-hand tricks with the basketball that no one had ever seen before. He set up his teammates for scores all night and made 24 points himself. "The hardest thing about playing against Cousy," the veteran Slater Martin has said, "is to resist the temptation to stand around and watch him." From the stands, happily, no one is obliged to resist. Boston won 115-106. The next day, in Minneapolis, they forgot to tell Elgin Baylor that Boston was the best team in basketball. He set a new pro record with 64 points as his Laker team beat the Celtics 136-115.