Starting Thursday, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers meet for the twelfth time in the National Basketball Association finals. The Lakers have traditionally showcased superstars, from George Mikan, the NBA’s first big man in the 1940s, through Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal, to Kobe Bryant today. In contrast, the Celtics, at their best, have exemplified team play.
Before 1968-1969, for example, the Lakers augmented their Hall of Fame duo of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West with 7’1” Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest offensive player of the era. In the 1969 finals, they encountered a dilapidated final rendition of the Celtics dynasty led by 6’9” center Bill Russell, the greatest defensive player. The Celtics eked out a 108-106 seventh game victory for their eleventh title in Russell’s thirteen seasons.
That gave Russell a career record of 6-1 versus Chamberlain in playoff series. Thus, Russell was almost universally acknowledged then to be the better player. The changing celebrity of Chamberlain and Russell since then illustrates some of the workings of fame.
Today, Chamberlain’s gaudy individual statistics grasp the sport’s fan imagination, while Russell’s accomplishments as the finest team player ever are increasingly forgotten, although he’s still alive at 76. The Basketball Reference website, for instance, will sell you an ad on Russell’s page for half the going rate for Wilt’s page.
Chamberlain, who has been dead since 1999, has become part of American folklore. Wilt’s first name alone is enough to call to mind the statistics of which he boasted: the 100 points he scored in one game, the 50 points per game he scored for an entire season, and the 20,000 women he claimed to have scored with.
The ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, a Celtics partisan, repeatedly insinuates in his entertaining and often impressive Book of Basketball that Chamberlain’s most notorious statistic was an elaborate ruse to cover up that he was gay. How often was Wilt actually seen with a woman, he asks?
The Splendid Splinter's incredible hitting statistics, such as being the last .400 hitter, continue to fascinate baseball fans, while Williams' contemporary, Stan Musial, who was a better team player and better than Williams at everything except hitting, is largely forgotten. Musial earned more MVP votes than Williams (granted, he lost fewer seasons to military service), yet, few can now remember if Musial is still alive (he’s 89), but everybody knows that after Williams's death in 2002, his head was cryonically frozen in liquid nitrogen in case future medical advances can bring him back to life.