Chapter 3: The Myth of the Rivalry, November 7, 1959 (Taste)

“Almost any argument people wanted to have could be carried on in the Russell vs. Chamberlain Debate, and almost any virtue and sin was imagined to be at stake.” — Bill Russell

[. . .]

If we must see Russell and Chamberlain as rivals, then we must expand and complicate our understanding of rivalry so that we may see not merely a zero-sum contest, from which one must emerge labeled a winner and the other a loser, one a success and the other a failure, but the fluid interaction of two agents, competing freely certainly, but also symbiotically bound up in a joint creative endeavor in which the perfection of one is a condition for the perfection of the other and the combination of the two perfections completely transforms a sport and a culture, terraforming the existing ground and laying it open to possibilities—like those described by Hickey—that I daresay neither Chamberlain or Russell would have imagined when they first jumped center against one another on November 7, 1959.


Of course, a basketball game results in an outcome in which one team scores more points than another at the conclusion of a predetermined period of play and—though neither “win” nor “lose” appears anywhere in the rules—everything in athletic culture tells us to call the team that scores fewer points the loser. It seems natural and even unavoidable, and certainly understandable to view a basketball game through the lens of the binary opposition between winning and losing. And from there, it is just a short step to casting the most important and visible individuals on each team as winners and losers. But even a moderately attentive observer knows that the outcome of basketball games is determined by the interaction of a multitude of factors. It is, after all, a team sport and an extremely dynamic one in which all players are regularly involved in the flow of the action. From that standpoint, the outcome of the game no longer reflects directly on any single individual.

There is no need to choose between Russell and Chamberlain. One can note the differences between the two players, and even have a preference for one over the other, without perpetuating the pernicious discourses of the myth of the rivalry. Indeed, even seen through the lens of what Stephen Mumford calls “competitive perception” (meaning with a powerful emotional investment in final outcomes), the exceptionally high level of competition between Chamberlain and Russell only intensifies affective experiences of hope and dread—the accelerators of fandom’s fire. Rather than the boredom ensuing if either player easily dominated a game, the competition between the two of them would not only bring out the best in each, but also leave fans of each excruciatingly and delightedly uncertain as to the outcome of any individual play, let alone the game. But their competition is also a valuable phenomenon in its own right in which the contested outcome operates as a heuristic, a kind of enabling fiction whereby fans and players all agree to participate as though winning were the most important thing in order to maximize the competitive intensity and, with that, the excellence of the athletic performance and the affective and intellectual appreciation of the event. Russell himself seemed to understand this when, mourning Chamberlain’s death in 1999, he said, “We didn’t have a rivalry; we had a genuinely fierce competition that was based on friendship and respect. We just loved playing against each other.”

In that case, the importance and, indeed, excitement of Russell-Chamberlain stems from the number of times that the two most dominant players of their age faced each other directly on the court with so much at stake and thereby spurred one another to peerless levels of basketball excellence. But the greater significance of their competition emerges only by restoring the context that the myth of the rivalry suppresses or distorts: racism and the struggle for freedom in America and in basketball. In pursuing excellence on the basketball court, they simultaneously revolutionized the sport for generations to follow and both exposed and demolished racist barriers in the game and in society, which should only make us appreciate them more: each of them as individuals, I mean, but also them—their relationship. There is virtually no aspect of basketball as millions around the world play and enjoy watching it today that cannot be traced back, more or less directly, to the tactical and cultural revolution that Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, together, ushered in.

Seen from this vantage point, it strikes me as either childish or petty to insist that a choice must be made, simply because they played on opposing teams in a sport in which one team wins and another loses. That the choice should be accompanied by pseudo-explanations recurring to dubiously backed and, in any event, certainly reductive characterizations of moral character, simplistically mapped onto likewise over-simplified stylistic and tactical differences hearkens something more harmful. But when this insistence, with its moralizing overtones, subtly attaches itself to powerful racial stereotypes, as the myth of the rivalry does, it becomes much more than petty: it devolves into the dangerous demand that we suppress a history of oppression and struggle and diminish the accomplishments of two human beings in order to pacify our unexamined anxiety over perceived threats to our privilege. If so, then by rejecting the myth of the rivalry we refuse complicity with a shameful legacy of racism in basketball and in society and ally ourselves instead with innovative forms of relationship pursued for the sake of freedom, on and off the court.

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