Towering men, modest `rivalry'



The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball

John Taylor

Random House / 432 pages

I am a little too young to have seen two of the greatest centers in basketball history during their primes. Bill Russell, the Boston Celtics star whose teams won 11 National Basketball Association titles from the late 1950s to the late 1960s, turned pro the year I was born. Wilt Chamberlain, the only man to score 100 points in an NBA game, and who averaged 30 points and 23 rebounds per game over his 14-year career, was on the downslide by the time I really began paying attention to basketball in the early 1970s.

Still, thanks to the voracious needs of ESPN'S 24-hour "classic" sports channel, I've been able to glimpse both men at their best, including some games where they went head to head. The elegance of the Celtics' fast break, so often started by a Russell rebound, and the sheer dominance of the young Chamberlain, bigger, faster and more athletic than any of his contemporaries, are breathtaking to see, even in an age of routinely extraordinary NBA highlights.

That is one reason, I think, why veteran journalist John Taylor's The Rivalry does not quite satisfy.

Rather than truly a story of a rivalry between these two men when each was changing the game he played, Taylor uses them to help reconstruct the story of the NBA's transition from small-town sideshow to the birth of "showtime."

His ambitious attempt to build this narrative around the lives and times of Chamberlain and Russell contains many intriguing scenes and insights. But he ultimately buries any dramatic arc he hoped to draw from the pair's first meeting in November 1959 to their climactic championship face-off in 1969 (Russell's Celtics won, four games to three; three months later, he retired).

The Rivalry has little new to say about any rivalry between the two men. Chamberlain died at 63 in 1999; Russell, 72, declined to be interviewed.

What the author pieces together from an exhaustive reporting job makes it clear that these men had vastly different ideas about how the game should be played and that neither was above an occasional dismissal of the other's achievements. But that's about as far as that goes.

The more obvious rivalry that Taylor brings to light in his book was the one between the Celtics of Russell (and longtime coach Red Auerbach) and the rest of the NBA. That is not a new story; the accomplishments of Russell's teams are unequaled by any other in any professional sport, save, perhaps, the New York Yankees.

During that run, Chamberlain was seen by the three teams he played for as a potential Celtic- slayer. But he ended up, as Taylor reminds us, a player whose record-setting personal accomplishments ultimately were seen as an obstacle to his teams' good fortune.

Taylor offers detailed portraits of two men who were vastly different - in temperament, background, athletic ability and ambition - and whose achievements and philosophies about basketball could not have been more distinct. Russell was the brooding, overachieving tactician for whom team success was paramount; Chamberlain was the game's first true superstar, whose exploits were diminished by his reputation for selfishness and lack of passion. Taylor shows us some of what drove each man, reminds us of what made each great in his own way, and details how each changed the game.

But that does not make for the suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat tale of a clash of titans one might hope for. Especially when the author spends so much of his time with supporting characters.

Ultimately, the two pillars of Taylor's book are alter egos, men who were more than rivals. A more interesting conflict illuminated by The Rivalry is the one between Russell and Chamberlain on the one hand, and the NBA and American society on the other. During a time of social and cultural upheaval, these two iconoclasts played the game and lived their lives on their own terms unafraid to speak their minds. Rivals or not, that is an accomplishment they proudly shared.

Michael Gray is features enterprise editor of The Sun and a longtime basketball junkie.

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