Wilt vs Bill
Through milky eyes I watched basketball on black and white TV. The network of the times. The sixties. Wilt Chamberlain against Bill Russell. L.A.’s yellow jerseys or Boston’s Irish green. Wilt “The Stilt”…as straight and tall as a California redwood. The unstoppable force of nature of whom it was said could score against God himself. Bill Russell, slender and lean with his spider arms, the “Watcher of The Sky” would rebound most any ball...catch it in mid-air and pass it into the stealthy hands of running men.
Our parents generation had their poisoned debates: race, war, civil rights, north, south, Asia, turmoil in the streets…are you for or against?…too much change...not fast enough. George Wallace or Dr. King? Whose people will die in the Holy Land? We would fear and despair at these things. That fear and despair now backlashed after all these years. But then we had our own giant debate: Wilt vs Bill. West or East. Who was greater---the outstretched big man in Yellow or Irish Green?
I remember two new boys on our street. Brothers. Black and Proud and from L.A. Their father stationed in the Northeast, sailing on Coast Guard ships. They strutted and spouted that Wilt “The Stilt” was better than any man. We told them in our Boston voices, that they should beware, they are in Celtic’s land, and the custom was Russell was the best and ours. They both looked at us and sighed in disbelief: “Oh, man! He’s not yours.”
My white friend said let’s settle it with some game. On a late June night we sneaked past our parents’ houses. It was 1968 and the months of assassinations and we thought it best they not be aware we would play basketball under flood lights. My friend and I always knew California was soft and easy, but the brothers played faster and harder than we imagined. We played Boston hard in return and saw the surprise in their eyes. We weren’t going to give them an inch on the tar. We pushed them a couple of times, and they pushed back. Then someone suggested we switch up the teams, break up the tension.
That made all the difference. I played with one brother. My friend with the other. Thirteen year old boys finally freed to run easily under the stars and through a soft breeze. Like black and white ribbons we flowed past each other, the sounds of basketball as a summer symphony gamed in perfect harmony. We ran till we could breathe hard no more. Till the sweat stopped flowing from our skin. Then we smiled and told each other our names.