by Todd Spehr

It was, oh so quietly, a spectacular decade for basketball books. Definitive biographies of Wilt Chamberlain and Pete Maravich came our way; former greats put pen to paper (Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, two lads named Magic and Bird); immortal teams, such as the ’67 Sixers, the ’69 Celtics, and the ’72 Lakers, all were eulogized in print; light was shed on the most damaging fight (Rudy T and Kermit) and the most incomprehensible individual achievement (Wilt’s 100) as both had entire books dedicated to them; the greatest of them all was a victim of excellent writing in a negative light; and one SI writer spent an entire season as an honorary “assistant” on the decade’s most viewable and enjoyable team – the 2006 Suns. So, yes, we’re in a good spot.

Yet, for all that we got out of the decade, no one book adequately captured today’s era. Sure, The Last Season chronicled the modern-day egos, Seven Seconds or Less painted (from the inside) a picture of the style of game that was cultivated and became the norm, and even Macrophenomenal showed how the game’s coverage has diversified, but no one book captured all of the elements. No, not even The Book of Basketball, which, as this site suggests, would be better consumed as a second edition.

One book that perhaps symbolized the potential of the era, with its personalities and closer-than-ever coverage, was Only the Strong Survive – Larry Platt’s book on Allen Iverson. AI is obviously layered with interest: Culturally, racially, basketball-wise, right down to the tremendous odds he overcame. But you feel shortchanged because it was written too early in Iverson’s career (2003) and the book is, shall I say, on the short side. Was a great opportunity missed? Ultimately, yes. The late David Halberstam, apparently, couldn’t write every relevant pro basketball book. The point is, perhaps a great basketball book can’t be written as the subject is current. Perhaps we need time, we need a chance to find perspective, let a little dust settle, before it can be properly summed up in book form. Basketball has never just been about the game – so why write a book on just “the game?” In the end, the best books of this decade were written with strong historical context.

So it seems appropriate that the best basketball book of the decade be overlooked in many ways. This publication had everything great in a sports book: A topic that has never been written about yet one that is well-known, a wider perspective is delved into (not enough authors look “around” their subject), it was exhaustively researched, and was exctherivalrypicellently written. The Rivalry – Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball, by John Taylor.

The title may leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but in reality, the book isn’t just the documentation of the greatest rivalry this sport has seen – it examines the impact that two iconic black players had in an era where race and politics became tangled in professional basketball and probably meant more than they should have. It also outlines the tribulations that a still-somewhat-young NBA had; this was an NBA still surviving on double-headers, teams that had five employees, coaches that smoked on the sidelines, and a schedule that was made by a team owner. The author takes Russell vs. Chamberlain and gives us the broader perspective – the best books don’t just give us the facts, they put things in perspective. Taylor does that.

The Rivalry doesn’t shy away from issues that plagued both men during a difficult time in society.

It refers to Russell’s distaste for dealing with what he called “white thinking,” and his relationship with the Boston public, despite carting home a banner darn near every spring, was never a strong one. Yet, despite that relationship, the book also entails how Russell felt about being a Celtic: About the bond he shared with Red Auerbach, a bond that went deeper than player-coach, and about his deep affinity for his teammates. He bled green. Just like when they played, Russell and Chamberlain may appear as equals, but Russ is (in this book) the dominant figure.

The author notes in the acknowledgments that he was drawn to “the psychology of conflict.” Making sense of the complex relationship shared by William Felton and Wilton Norman was no small feat; they were friendly when they played, yet didn’t speak for the ensuing 20 years after their last on-court meeting. One was driven by unity, by chemistry, by winning, the other by numbers that would define him as great. The book indicates that Russell may have been driven by the fact nothing came easy to him at first – in the game of basketball, and, in the game of life. He was this close to landing a job as an apprentice at a sheet-metal company before going to college. Chamberlain, on the other hand, was perhaps softened by his elite status even as a high school prospect; the expectations and potential, the hype before we knew what hype was, always left us wanting more despite statistics of gargantuan proportions.

Bottom line is that The Rivalry is the definitive – the only – book on the Russell-Chamberlain joust. It’s a book that explains the surroundings just as much as the focal points, is more than just a tabulating strengths and weaknesses, and one that captures an era that in many ways shaped the game. The ultimate message of the book: If Magic and Bird saved the NBA, then Russell and Wilt made it a league worth saving. Read it.

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For more Decade Awards, check out the archive.