By most accounts, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were the first two iconic NBA players whose sphere of influence registered far away from the hardwood. Perhaps that’s why a guy like myself who never came within 13 years of seeing neither take a professional dribble continues to be so enamored with the two.
Everything involving the Civil Rights-era titans was and still is polarizing from Russell’s dominance, the bizarre legacy Wilt left in the eyes of many, their brief falling out and how they awesomely resembled giddy school girls around one another long after their playing days. The Hall of Famers sat down with Bob Costas some 16 years ago for an interview that proved equal parts revealing, entertaining, comical and shocking. Shocking how, exactly? Try this sequence.
Costas: The 25-year-old Wilt transplanted into today’s NBA. What do you do?
Wilt: It’s simple for me. It may be a little difficult for Russ, but it’s simple for me. I think it’d be easy for Russ. You see, with the new rules which all slant to help the offense. Now, when I get the ball, instead of having two and three people and Russ on me at the same time, I’m by myself with one guy. I would love it. I would love it. Um, 50 points, maybe 60 points, maybe 70 points a game. Cause I have nobody…wait, wait…You asked me a question, right?
Costas: 70 a game?!
Wilt: Well, you know I was talking to Russ about the last 10 games of my ’61-’62 season right before I scored 100 points, I averaged about 71 points a game.
On one hand, the argument could be made this was Wilt in a nutshell – a man who cared primarily about posting the gaudiest numbers imaginable (which he did quite often) more than championships. On the other, Costas lobbed him a question and he answered it, specifically. Isn’t that what we debate all the time anyway? What could Player X do if Player X played in Generation Y?
Could Wilt average 50-60-70 a game in the ’90s, though? I doubt it. I highly doubt it, actually. He’d probably have a better shot doing so now in a NBA that maybe boasts three or four true (talented) centers at most. Compare that to 16 years ago when a surplus of quality fives littered the league from Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutumbo, Patrick Ewing and even someone like Rik Smits. The clip gets even better, however, when Russell decides to join in on the fun when Costas inquires about his Celtics teams squaring up against the best teams of the past “five, six years” aka Hakeem’s Rockets, but more so the Jordan/Pippen-led Bulls.
Russell: We would’ve still won 11 championships. I haven’t seen a team in the last 10 years, 15 years that could beat us.
What does this prove? Generational influence is the ultimate thermometer on how we remember, appreciate and occasionally slander the game, nearly to a fault at times. The same generation who says the game was at its all-time peak in the ’90s compared to now were the same ones getting plucked in the head by the generation before it on a big brother/little brother-like relationship. In essence, nothing in the present can ever surpass anything from yester-decade because there are so many different methods to alter the past in one’s favor. Details fade away over time where results do not. A flawed way of thinking, indeed, yet odds are it’ll always play out in such a manner from now until the end of time or whenever the league decides it no longer wants want to open for business. The actual synopsis? Every era has its pros and its cons.
More important than their take on the then-current landscape of the NBA was the bond Russell and Chamberlain shared. With the interview taking place sometime in 1997, no one knew then, but it would stand as one of the last instances both men would be in the same room at the same time due to Wilt’s passing two years later. There’s something about the authenticity of a natural fondness and enjoying another person’s company that’s rarely duplicated. Through everything they experienced in life, they always had each other. And still do now because as painful as it most often is, death fails erase memories. It heightens them.
And maybe that – in the long run – remains the most important intricacy of the impact they had on basketball, but more exclusively, themselves.