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Big Bang

Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain changed the way basketball was played. But on the night they first faced each other - in 1959, at the Garden - the fans were the winners.

Wilt Chamberlain (far left) had at least 3 inches on No. 6 Bill Russell, and that concerned the Celtics center before he and the rookie first squared off at the Boston Garden almost 50 years ago. On November 7, 1959, almost 14,000 basketball fans filled the Garden to watch what was dubbed the 'Battle of the Titans' (right).
Wilt Chamberlain (far left) had at least 3 inches on No. 6 Bill Russell, and that concerned the Celtics center before he and the rookie first squared off at the Boston Garden almost 50 years ago. On November 7, 1959, almost 14,000 basketball fans filled the Garden to watch what was dubbed the "Battle of the Titans" (right). (Getty Images Photo / George Silk)

ON THE NIGHT OF NOVEMBER 7, 1959, PEOPLE LINED UP ON THE SIDEWALKS OUTSIDE BOSTON Garden, the dingy yellow-brick sports arena above North Station, and crowded along the bar at the Iron Horse, the old drinking parlor inside. They stood in clusters on Causeway Street and Haverhill Street and Canal Street, their voices almost drowned out by the thundering traffic on the elevated highway and subway tracks that crossed above them on girders and by the hiss and clang of trains.

They had much to debate that evening. In Washington, D.C., Charles Van Doren, a 33-year-old Columbia University English professor, had just admitted to a congressional committee that the producers of Twenty-One, the television quiz show that had turned him into a national figure, had secretly prepped him with the answers to questions. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who had all but announced his intention to run for president the following year, had been touring California and Oregon the previous week, greeted by ecstatic crowds carrying signs saying "Viva Kennedy!" In Boston itself, a newspaper strike was underway, and just four days earlier, John Collins, the Suffolk County register of probate and a victim of paralytic polio who was confined to a wheelchair, had defeated Senate President John Powers for the Boston mayoralty. It was a stunning upset, brought about by an FBI raid on the headquarters of a gambling syndicate just 100 yards from the East Boston police station and resulting in charges of widespread corruption in city government.

But the topic that consumed the crowds this night was not the television scandal nor the impending administration of John Collins nor the presidential prospects of a young Irish-American Catholic. It was instead basketball, specifically the game scheduled that night between the Celtics and the Philadelphia Warriors. While Boston was a storied sports town, the sports that had always provoked the most passion were baseball and hockey, which had been played for generations in the city. Professional basketball in Boston, in contrast, was only 13 years old in 1959. Walter Brown, owner of the Bruins and leaseholder on Boston Garden, had started the Celtics team to fill seats at the arena on nights when his beloved hockey team was not playing, and the big, drafty building would otherwise sit dark and empty. For much of the 1950s, rarely was the Garden more than half filled when the Celtics played. On the night of November 7, however, every one of the 13,909 seats had long been sold out. Along Causeway Street, scalpers were demanding upward of $20 for tickets that usually went for $2.50.

The reason for the excitement was that 23-year-old Wilt Chamberlain had joined the Philadelphia Warriors as a rookie that year, and on this night, Chamberlain would for the first time face the Celtics center, Bill Russell. Sportswriters were calling the confrontation "Battle of the Titans," "Battle of the Giants," and "Big Goliath vs. Little Goliath." They speculated about what would happen when an "irresistible offensive force" encountered an "immovable defensive object." In an article anticipating the game, Sport magazine declared, "Pro basketball will be stepping into its golden age when Wilt Chamberlain, the rookie, clashes with Bill Russell, the leaping veteran."

CHAMBERLAIN HAD ATTRACTED NATIONAL attention even while a student at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, where his team won 58 games and lost three in his three years there and where he set a statewide scoring record, averaging just under 40 points per game. At the University of Kansas, he had proved to be such an overwhelming presence on the court that Jimmy Breslin, then a young sportswriter, wrote an article for The Saturday Evening Post titled "Can Basketball Survive Chamberlain?"

Basketball had had big men before. In the early 1950s, George Mikan, the 6-foot-10-inch center of the Minneapolis Lakers, had dominated the game. But Mikan was a lurching, graceless man who wore metal-rimmed glasses and lumbered up and down the court, bashing aside opponents with his huge left arm. Chamberlain was more than 7 feet tall, but he was also quick, agile, strong, and smart. His legs were so long that he seemed part gazelle. And they were so powerful that when he leapt up, arms raised, toward the backboard, his hands at the apex of his jump were 3 feet above the rim, which he could look down onto. He was so good that not only did no one seem to be able to beat him, few people actually seemed capable of playing against him.

Except maybe Bill Russell. Russell had led the Celtics to two championships since joining the team three years earlier. Never much of a shooter, Russell had perfected a style of defensive play, blocking shots and rebounding ferociously by leaping so high that he seemed to hang suspended in the air. His size and athleticism had transformed professional basketball. Prior to Russell joining the National Basketball Association, the game had consisted of little more than men running up and down the court making layups. But because Russell blocked layups so effectively, players had been forced to create a wider range of offensive plays, passing back and forth and setting screens until one of them could make a mid-range jump shot. The game immediately became more complex, varied, and challenging for the players and more fun for the spectators, and the late 1950s became known as the "Russell Era."

But now, with Chamberlain in the league, sportswriters were wondering if the Russell Era was coming to an end, if the defensive style of play Russell personified would yield to the singularly muscular offensive style of Wilt Chamberlain. The sport had been thought of as a game played well below the net. Now, thanks to Chamberlain, it was becoming a game played in the air.

RUSSELL, SITTING IN THE CELTICS LOCKER room before the game, had read the articles musing about the end of an era - his era, even though he was only 26 - and he wondered if they were right. Russell had eaten a steak that afternoon and then played cards with teammates Maurice King and K.C. Jones. Russell always got nervous before a game, so nervous that he routinely threw up. Night after night, 60 or 70 times a season, he was in the head before the game, tossing the remains of his lunch. In fact, he did it with such regularity that, to his teammates, it became a ritualistic sign of good luck. But on this night, Russell was more nervous than usual, even after the obligatory trip to the head. Russell was tall, 6-10, but Chamberlain had 3 or 4 inches on him. Also, Russell knew, Chamberlain was a good 40 to 50 pounds heavier than he was. He could jump just as high, and he was just as quick up and down the court.

Russell considered himself one of the most serious students and analysts of basketball ever to play the game. While at the University of San Francisco, he had considered so systematically the game's physics and geometry - the trajectories the ball drew between the horizontal plane of the court and the vertical planes of the backboards, the thrust of a 240-pound body hurtling at you and the dynamics of deflecting that thrust - that he thought of himself as a scientist in sneakers. But Russell knew Chamberlain was just as smart as he was. The sportswriters were saying Chamberlain was even smarter. Russell wondered if he was going to be outplayed and outthought by rookie Wilton Norman Chamberlain.

People had been feeding Russell information about Chamberlain for weeks: his moves and shots - particularly his fadeaway jumper - and what worked against him, what didn't, how close to guard him. Prepared as he was, Russell still felt unprepared, because Chamberlain sounded simply unstoppable, a man who was going to get his 30 points regardless of what you did. Russell decided one thing: He would not look up at Chamberlain. Russell was used to being the tallest person in the room or on the court, and there is nothing that a tall person, accustomed to looking down at everyone, finds more intimidating than to come face to face with someone who is even taller.

Chamberlain had spent the afternoon before the game sprawled diagonally across two beds he'd pushed together in the Hotel Lenox, trying to rest. Basketball fans had learned where he was staying, and a small crowd had badgered him for autographs when he emerged from the hotel in the early evening. After obliging, he caught a taxi to Boston Garden. Now, sitting in the cramped and over-heated visitors' locker room with the rest of the Warriors, he was nervous. His transition into the pros had been more difficult than he'd thought it would be. Pro ball was more violent than college ball, for one thing. He'd been elbowed in the mouth by Willie Naulls in a game against the Knicks. And Naulls had chased him up and down the court trying to tear off the rubber band he always wore on his wrist. Also, Chamberlain had played exhibition ball with the Harlem Globetrotters for a year before turning pro, and since the actual games the Trotters played were little more than jokey pretexts for various basketball stunts, he'd picked up a few bad habits, such as clowning around and walking with the ball.

But he was adjusting. A bigger problem for Chamberlain going into the game that night against the Celtics was that although he was surrounded by good players like Paul Arizin and Guy Rogers, the Warriors lacked Boston's overall talent. That meant that while Bill Russell could stick to rebounding and rely on Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman to score, Chamberlain would have to play both defense and offense. He'd managed to do this so far against other teams, and the Warriors had won their first three games of the season. But he wondered if he'd live up to all the advance billing, if he could hold his own against the greatest defensive player in the league.

THE CELTICS FANS, OVERWHELMINGLY WHITE and working class, had tended to have conflicting feelings toward Bill Russell, their enthusiasm for him as an athlete undercut by their resentment at the fact that not only was the team dominated by a black man, but he was aloof in manner and from time to time gave voice to his indignation over his country's - and Boston's - racial inequities. As a result, the crowd tended to reserve its affection for Cousy, the talented local boy who'd come from Holy Cross and was one of the best ballhandlers in the league. But on this night, as the announcer introduced Russell to the almost 14,000 fans in the Garden, the applause, in anticipation of the matchup with Chamberlain, was thunderous. The Tall Man, as some sportswriters had taken to calling him, was finally getting a little appreciation in his adopted hometown.

In midcourt before the tip-off, Russell and Chamberlain shook hands. Russell, unable to help himself, broke his vow not to look up at Chamberlain. The man was tall. Ever since joining the league 2 1/2 years before, Russell had been able to do pretty much what he had wanted to do on the court. Now he was facing a man who not only towered over him but also could jump and dunk, had huge hands and the strength of a wrestler, and knew how to rebound and could hit from the outside. How, Russell wondered, was he supposed to play him?

The referee tossed the ball into the air, and they both leapt. Russell, finding that he was quicker on his feet, got the tip-off. After that, the game quickly turned into a matchup between Russell and Chamberlain, almost as if it were a form of single combat. The sports-writers who had watched Russell and Chamberlain play individually had never seen either man seriously challenged for control of the ball. But tonight was different. It was as if only now had each found an opponent worthy of his own talent, for each appeared to be forcing the other to work harder, to stretch further, to demand more of himself.

It seemed that every time Chamberlain rose up in the air to launch his fadeaway jump shot, Russell rose with him, his arm reaching up and out and over Chamberlain, requiring Chamberlain to try to go even higher. At the apex of their leaps, with their arms raised, the two men were more than 12 feet in the air, towering above the people sitting courtside and moving together in what seemed almost like a form of ballet. Jimmy Breslin, it was clear, had it all wrong with his notion that Wilt Chamberlain somehow represented the end of basketball. What the sportswriters were seeing that night was more like the beginning of basketball, the discovery of infinite new possibilities.

All in all, Chamberlain took 38 shots, but he scored only four baskets when paired man-to-man with Russell. Once, Chamberlain leapt to make a fadeaway jumper, and Russell leapt so much higher that he was actually able to block the shot of the taller man, reaching out with his hand and swatting down the ball. Chamberlain scored 22 points on tip-ins and dunk shots, but Russell had him so frustrated that in the second half he resorted to hook shots, a maneuver he had scorned since college as a disgracefully amateurish junk move. He looked awkward shooting them, standing flat-footed on the floor, tossing the ball over the side of his head, and every single one of those hook shots missed.

While Chamberlain ended up scoring more points than anyone else in the game - 30 to Russell's 22 - Boston won 115-106. When it was over, the Garden erupted. To Russell, standing on the court, the crowd's emotion was so powerful that the arena felt as if it were shaking. Far from Chamberlain making him irrelevant, Russell thought, his opponent had instead forced him, or inspired him, to play better than he'd ever played before.

John Taylor is a writer on Long Island, New York. E-mail comments to magazine@globe.com

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