Chapter 3: The Myth of the Rivalry, November 7, 1959 (Overview)
A friend of mine expressed the feeling driving this chapter as an informal rhetorical question: “You see a man with 31,000 points. Another has eleven rings. You think: I have to choose. What the hell is wrong with you?” The first man is Wilt Chamberlain, who amassed over 31,000 points in the course of his NBA career—fifth best in history (his 30.4 points per game average is second in history). The second is Bill Russell, whose Boston Celtics teams won eleven NBA championships between 1957 and 1969, including a record eight in a row. And what “you think” you “have to choose” is who was better. My friend concisely depicted a two-step perceptual (“you see”) and psychological (“you think”) process while challenging it with a pathologizing rhetorical question (“What the hell is wrong with you?”). This simple two-step process—perceiving two players and then believing oneself compelled to judge which was greater—has fueled basketball’s oldest, most enduring, and among its most highly charged debates. The body of discourse that constitutes this debate—the depictions, assertions, arguments, structures of thought, metaphors, and narratives employed within it, all taken together—form what I call the myth of the rivalry.
It may seem strange to refer to a real debate concerning a real rivalry as a myth. The myth of the rivalry refers to a way of portraying their competition that lays the basis for a form of arguing one particular position. The myth of the rivalry presents the actual competition between Russell and Chamberlain as not so much between two individual basketball players, but between representatives of two opposed and mutually exclusive approaches to the game, styles of play, off-court demeanor, and, indeed, types of character and sets of moral values. Having assigned, as pseudo-fact, these attributes to each player, the myth of the rivalry relies on anecdote, metaphor, repetition, circular logic, and selective statistical reference to assert the objective superiority of Bill Russell over Wilt Chamberlain. In this sense, the myth of the rivalry entails not merely the claim that Russell was greater than Chamberlain, but a particular way of framing, asserting, and justifying that claim.
The myth of the rivalry emerged (and continues today) to vent and contain powerful anxieties and desires, whether harbored by whites or blacks, stirred in that collective cultural repository I’ve called the white basketball unconscious by the rise to preeminence of African American men at basketball’s highest and most visible level. In the face of the integration of basketball and the undeniable fact that the league’s best players were disproportionately African American, adherents of the myth of the rivalry appeared to accept these realities while in fact denying them. This myth thus protected the imagined whiteness of the static, idealized form of the game postulated by the myth of creation and consolidated in the modern basketball state. Understanding this can help to counter its misrepresentations and to shed light on how the myth serves agendas pertaining to but extending far beyond basketball. But loosening the grip of the myth requires more than simply laying bare its inner working and hidden purposes. It requires inventing an alternative narrative grounded in what the myth obscures. In this case, that will be the diverse skill sets and styles of play of Russell and Chamberlain—not isolated dichotomously from one another, but as evolving in relationship together, as well as their connections to that history of race, in basketball and in America, that the myth’s adherents prefer to ignore.