How Shaquille O'Neal Accidentally Mended The Friendship Between Two NBA Legends

Even if you aren't a basketball fan, there's a very, very good chance you know a thing or two about Shaquille Rashaun O'Neal. The first overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft, O'Neal was literally and figuratively the next big thing in the league, a 7-foot-1-inch center out of LSU who possessed immense strength and surprising athleticism for someone who weighed a shade under 300 pounds at his lightest during his pro basketball career. For 19 seasons, Shaq did so many things at a high level ... except convert on his free throws, as evidenced by his 52.7% career percentage from the 15-foot line. 

All jokes about Shaq's poor free-throw shooting aside, he also made — and continues to make — a huge impact away from the basketball court, as his larger-than-life personality and charisma made him a natural fit for other endeavors such as music, acting, and even professional wrestling. Yes, it can be argued that he was never going to win an Oscar or a Grammy for his accomplishments in the first two fields, and in the last one, he never did get that rumored match with Paul Wight, formerly Big Show in WWE. (O'Neal did, however, take part in a mixed tag team match for rival company AEW in 2021.) But thanks to one of the many commercials he's done through the years, he was somehow instrumental in getting two long-estranged NBA legends back on the same page.

Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were surprisingly good friends for most of their playing days

You're probably never going to see Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov (or Dustin Poirier, for that matter) laughing and joking with each other over a few shots of Proper No. Twelve, at least not in the near future. But sporting history has some examples of ostensibly bitter rivals who actually had a good friendship behind the scenes, such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird after that Converse commercial from the mid-'80s broke the ice between the two feuding superstars. Years prior to that, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell also were the fiercest of rivals as the NBA's top two centers of their era. They were, however, good friends who bonded over their shared status as Black NBA superstars in an era defined by racial unrest, with the league far from being as popular as it is today.

"I mean, [Russell would] come past my house on Thanksgiving, eat my food, sleep in my bed, and the next day, whip my butt," Chamberlain told Bob Costas in a 1997 interview, as quoted by Jackie MacMullan in an article for The Ringer covering her "Icons Club" podcast. "Now my mother would say, 'Now, Wilt, we shouldn't feed Bill so well next time."

As further explained by MacMullan, it didn't bother Russell that Chamberlain was, by far, the more dominant scorer and the guy who ended up on more All-NBA First Teams. The Boston Celtics big man was all about championship bling, and entering the 1969 NBA Finals, Russell had 10 championships to Chamberlain's two.

Chamberlain took offense at Russell's accusation that he 'copped out' during the 1969 Finals

Before we get to Shaquille O'Neal's involvement in things, we should look at what caused Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to fall out. The 1969 NBA Finals were going to be Russell's last, and he expected Chamberlain to bring it on court. "The Big Dipper" brought it, not resting even for a single minute as his Los Angeles Lakers went 3-3 against the Boston Celtics in the first six games of the series. Sure, his scoring numbers were down, and his free-throw shooting was horrendous as usual. But Chamberlain was an iron man out there ... until the last five minutes of Game 7, which was held in Los Angeles with the Lakers favored to win, and consequently end Russell's career on a low note.

According to The Ringer, Chamberlain headed to the bench with a knee injury and wouldn't come back; supposedly, he asked Butch Van Breda Kolff if he could return to the game, but the Lakers coach wasn't having it. The Celtics ended up winning the game, 108-106, and while one would expect Russell to be happy that he won his 11th championship with Boston, he was upset that Chamberlain seemingly bailed out instead of powering through his injury. In fact, Russell alleged during a speech later that year that Chamberlain "copped out," adding that "any injury short of a broken leg or broken back isn't good enough."

These comments hurt Chamberlain, who felt that his friend was unfairly accusing him of malingering. As a result, he and Russell didn't speak to each other for more than two decades, and Russell must have added some salt to the wounds by writing in his autobiography that Chamberlain's Game 7 exit in 1969 was like a "misspelled word at the end of a cherished book."

Shaq's 1993 Reebok commercial brought Wilt and Russ back together after 24 years

"Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk." If you were a basketball fan in 1993, that line should be very familiar to you — that was the "password" Shaquille O'Neal uttered in order to have an audience with four of the NBA's all-time greatest centers, namely Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Walton, in their 1993 Reebok commercial. In the final five minutes and 30 seconds of the "Wilt & Russ" episode of The Ringer's "Icons Club" podcast, Jackie MacMullan explained that many of Russell and Chamberlain's mutual friends tried to get both men to squash their beef, but it was that Reebok commercial, with Shaq as the young NBA superstar serving as the focal point, that really helped thaw the ice. 

Throughout the course of the shoot, Russell and Chamberlain "rediscovered common ground," and as Walton recalled to MacMullan, it was the Big Dipper who made the first move in mending the fences. "I'm also grateful to Wilt, for having the magnanimous personality to be able to bring everybody together, and have it be an out-of-control ego-fest where everyone is angry and bitter and complaining that they don't have more," Walton said.

The friendship continued until Chamberlain's death in 1999

It's hard to say whether Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell would have become friends again had it not been for their involvement in Shaquille O'Neal's shoe commercial. But in the final four minutes of "Wilt & Russ," MacMullan said that the two friends-turned-frenemies-turned-friends-again were hitting it off, almost like nothing happened to make them stop talking to each other for nearly 25 years. Russell had a good laugh over Chamberlain's stories of his hedonistic lifestyle, and both men took to calling each other by their middle names — Chamberlain became Norman, and Russell became Felton.

After the shoot, the two legendary centers maintained steady conversations via phone, but sadly, Russell only had six more years to bask in the renewed friendship. Chamberlain died on October 12, 1999, and Russell eulogized his toughest NBA rival by saying, "I've lost a dear and exceptional friend, and an important part of my life." MacMullan also revealed that Russell made one important admission to Chamberlain sometime before the latter's death, telling him, "You are the only person who understands how I feel."

Given the trials and tribulations they faced in a sporting world that was far from fully integrated, as well as the fact they were among the very few '50s and '60s NBA stars who were instantly recognizable and paid well enough to live comfortably, one can truly relate with how Russell felt about Chamberlain despite their long period of estrangement.