Ed. note: Great idea for a FanPost -- thanks for posting, Garrett! -- MW
Since things are slow, I thought I'd finally get around to posting a book review on "The Rivalry", a very detailed look at the careers of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. The last basketball book I read ("The Art of a Beautiful Game" - if you haven't read it yet, what are you waiting for, huh?) was full of modern day anecdotes, clever and engaging statistics and behind-the-scenes info, and had a great mix of humour and seriousness. This book is pretty much the exact opposite.
If this was an audio book, it would be read in the slow, methodical voice of Morgan Freeman because that's exactly what this book is: a measured, methodical look at the careers of two intertwined superstars and the circumstances of the league and society they were a part of. Overall I think I liked this book, although I read it in such tiny spurts over a long period of time that some of the details have started to blend together in my mind grapes.
The biggest pieces of information I came away with were that Bill Russell was actually a dick and Wilt Chamberlain was pretty much LeBron James in the 60s. They both had their reasons, which are outlined fairly early in the book. Wilt was always pampered from a young age due to his incredible physical gifts while Russell had to work his ass off and experienced some pretty intense and hateful racism even when he was starring on the Celtics.
But the book is actually a lot more than just stories of Wilt and Russell, because there have been a lot of those already over the years. There's a lot of focus on the development of the league and the negotiating done by the owners and coaches back in the 50's, which is pretty interesting to read about.
Everything was a back-room deal, with owners promising players and salaries to other owners, or ticket revenue, or all sorts of other strange things. There's a really interesting section about the 1964 All-Star game, where the players almost walked out minutes before the first televised all-star game started due to disputes with the owners (which eventually led to the creation of the NBAPA). The group of players was led by Tommy Heinsohn and he even earned a few Tommy Points after I read how he brought the players together and what other people had to say about him. And there are a lot of random anecdotes about the other guys who played with Wilt and Russell (Nate Thurmond was Ben Wallace before Ben Wallace was born) and their coaches (a large focus on Red Auerbach).
There are a lot of detailed recounts of tight finishes in close games (spoiler alert: Russell won a lot and Wilt lost a lot), and that's where the details kind of got a bit muddy to me. Wilt, especially, goes through a lot of teams, a lot of coaches, and a lot of teammates, alienating most of them throughout the years, and all of it kind of blends together in an Iverson-esque locker room poison during the final third of the book. With the outcome of the games never in question thanks to YouTube, the focus is more on locker-room rivalries between Wilt and pretty much every single coach he ever had and the grueling personal and physical trials Russell went through in "racially troubled Boston" and as an aging superstar in a really rough league. The Lakers/Celtics rivalry was so intense even the owner got in on it. Could you imagine seeing this exchange in front of the media today?
Jack Kent Cooke (Lakers owner and fellow Canadian): "I think that right now Chamberlain is playing as well as he's ever played for anyone. We're going to win it all."
Auerbach: "You're going to win it all if you don't play us."
Auerbach: "You'll be an old man before you get that. Russell will be walking around the court on a cane. Chamberlain never could beat Russell. See you in the playoffs."
Who does that? Can you imagine Rick Carlisle telling ESPN that LeBron could never win the playoffs and they'll never beat the Mavs? Crazy.
Anyways, if you're interested in the history of the league and the growth of the game throughout the 60's, this is definitely a good read. I knew Wilt was a beast before I read the book, but hearing about all the things he could do (and most people swear he wasn't even trying as hard as he could have) makes me wonder if he really was the GOAT. If you'd rather stay current and just read some fun insights and stories, check out that other book instead.
And just because I like pictures, here's one of my favourites of Wilt:
And here they are, duking it out on the court.
And this is the photo from the back of the book. Almost a fight!