Despite Joel Embiid’s chagrin, the Boston Celtics-Philadelphia 76ers rivalry has deep roots. The current iteration may be a bit one-sided, but that doesn’t detract from the well-established bitterness between the two teams and their fanbases.
Allen Iverson and Paul Pierce faced off in the postseason. Larry Bird had to go through Julius Irving’s 76ers during his 1981 NBA Finals run. But no era of the rivalry holds a candle to Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
“I’ve learned more about the Celtics and 76ers different rivalries throughout time [by] watching Bill Russell’s Netflix series,” said Jaylen Brown. “I got to see how he and Wilt Chamberlain had a rivalry back in the day. Well, at least the Sixers and the Celtics did. Bill and Wilt used to go at it, how many people used to show up to those games, and kind of how it was born.”
Philadelphia acquired Chamberlain from the then-San Francisco Warriors in 1965, but the rivalry preceded that date. Chamberlain‘s Warriors moved to San Francisco ahead of the 1962-63 season, but before that, they called the East Coast home in Philadelphia.
So, while Russell’s and Chamberlain’s rivalry between the Celtics and 76ers didn’t ignite until 1965, the two cities witnessed the stars battle for years.
“Learning about that history kind of gave me more foresight into today’s time,” said Brown. “I think it was a lot different back then than it is now, but I definitely enjoy the 76ers matchup. It’s a fun environment. It’s a great basketball environment. A lot of intensity, especially on the road in Philly. It should be fun.”
In total, Russell and Chamberlain faced off against one another six different times in the playoffs while in Boston and Philadelphia, respectively. Russell had a clear edge, going 5-1 in those series, but it was always a battle when Chamberlain came to town.
The two megastars were close friends off the court, even sharing Thanksgiving meals with one another.
“Bill would come to my house on Thanksgiving night because we had Philly vs. Boston the next night,” Chamberlain revealed in an old interview. “He would sleep in my bed and take some food, and he would go out there and whip my butt. And my mother would say, ‘now Wilt, we shouldn’t feed Bill so well next time.’”
The pair perfectly embodied what a rivalry should be. Bad blood and competitive fire should not only be encouraged but expected on the court. But off the floor, there’s no need for the hatred to boil over.
Each man had a resounding respect for the other, and it all came back to their willingness to leave it all on the court — a lesson today’s stars can learn from the two Hall-of-Famers.
“Absolutely,” said Brown when asked about the lessons that can be taken from Russell. “Bill Russell was an amazing competitor, and a lot of his peers had so much respect for him. Wilt Chamberlain, who played with the 76ers, was one. He would talk about how fierce Bill Russell was, the will to win, how much he wanted to win, how much will, how much drive, and how much determination he had.”
Chamberlain had the stats. He had the 100-point game. His records and box scores will never be touched. But Russell was a winner.
That’s all he ever cared about.
“You’ll probably be able to notice some guys in the playoffs, even now in today’s game, that have different gears that you can go to where it just seems like they come alive or just have a will to win,” Brown explained. “Bill was one of the pioneers of that. Just the intangibles. It was fun to watch the docuseries, and it’s fun to play in Boston.”
So, as the Celtics and 76ers get set to inscribe a new edition of their rivalry into the history books, Brown is thinking of Russell and Chamberlain.
“I think it’s great for the game,” Brown said of rivalries. “I think it just gets the people talking. Gets people excited. People mark it on their calendars. People are waiting for that day. It’s just great for the game. The build-up, the anticipation, the stories, the history–all of those things play a part. Being a part of it now, in 2023, the ongoing legacy of the Sixers and the Celtics, it’s an honor. So, it should be fun.”
With the Russell’s 6 imprinted on every player’s jersey and etched into the paint at TD Garden, the Celtics are ready to welcome the 76ers with open arms — and a lot of hostility.