Bill Russell pettily pushed for a $100,001 contract to one-up rival Wilt Chamberlain, only to lose in the end


Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were two of the greatest centers to have played in the NBA, and both of them were paid like it back in the day, even if it was the result of some petty fighting.

The Celtics and Warriors centers form the building blocks of the league. They were basically there right from the start, when the NBA was getting on its feet and becoming a major league in the U.S.

They helped popularize the sport because of their dominance. Bill Russell played from 1956 to 1969, and Wilt played from 1959 to 1973. Because of how great they were, their paths crossed in several ways, not just as rivals.

Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain | The Men Who Defined The NBA

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Bill Russell threatened to retire if he wasn’t paid more than Wilt Chamberlain

Early in their careers, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain brought very different approaches to their games. Wilt was the electric offensive genius who could drop 50 on any given night. Meanwhile, Bill Russell was a defensive and rebounding hound, understanding his role clearly on the team to help win championships.

When 1965 rolled around, Russell had racked up 8 titles, including 7 in a row. Chamberlain still hadn’t won a ring, but he was a multiple-time scoring and rebounding champ. So, when contract negotiations rolled around, Philadelphia offered Chamberlain a 3-year, $100,000 contract, making him the highest-paid player in the league.

Russell was furious when he caught wind of the amount. The Celtics were only prepared to offer him $75,000 for the same time period. Russell wasn’t having it, and he threatened to retire if he didn’t get more than Wilt. Russell was so intent on beating Wilt that he didn’t even care if his contract was just $1 more than Wilt’s.

On this date, Bill Russell signed a contract worth $1 more than Wilt Chamberlain’s deal

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In the end, that’s exactly what Russell got: a $100,001 contract. However, this story might have a different side to it.

Dolph Schayes recalls how Wilt still beat out Russell

From Basketball: A Love Story by Jackie Macmullan, an excerpt from Dolph Schayes, a 12-time NBA All-Star, shows that Wilt may have still won out at the end. From Dolph:

There was always the Russel-vs-Wilt thing.  In 1965, we played an exhibition game in North Caroline.  A headline came out that Wilt was the first $100,000 player.  Russell blew his stack and said to Auerbach: “I win championships.  I want more”.  And then the next day, it says that Russell got $100,001.  I spoke to Wilt and he said: “Dolph, don’t believe it.  I really get a lot more than $100,000.  But rather than break the financial structure of the League, they didn’t want to announce it.”

That adds more light to the rivalry the two shared. Clearly, the two wanted to spite each other as much as they could. There was no reason for Russell to demand just $1 more than Wilt except to prove he was better. Similarly, there’s no way to fact-check Wilt’s statement, so he could have also brought it up just to troll Russell.

More importantly, though, the two shared a memorable rivalry in the early days of the league, and together, they formed the backbone of the league at a crucial stage.

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