Bill Russell’s 11 championships in 13 seasons tell the story about the player who put winning above all else
John Havlicek remembers the day Bill Russell put the present professional basketball world in perspective.
“It was one of those Las Vegas celebrity golf tournaments,” the Celtics’ Hall of Famer said. “The Bulls had just won another championship and someone walked up to Bill Russell and said, ‘What do you think of the Bulls winning three in a row?'”
“Russell looked at him and said, ‘Not much.'”
Bill Russell meant no disrespect to Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen or Phil Jackson. But when you were the key individual on 11 championship teams during a 13-year NBA career, you are a hard grader.
It is the 37th full season since Bill Russell last played for the Celtics. But let there be no doubt in the mind of any young fan about what would happen were he to be time-capsuled into the contemporary NBA – no bigger, no stronger, no quicker, no more intelligent, no more competitive – in short, no better or worse than he was in his physical prime.
“There is no doubt about it. He would be, by far, the best center in the league today,” maintained Red Auerbach, who, it should be pointed out, always makes it very clear that he has never had any intention of living in the past.
Havlicek, another pragmatist – he identified Larry Bird as being his superior right from the get-go – agrees. “No doubt,” said Havlicek. “He’d be just as good. Remember that, in addition to being physically gifted, he was always the smartest player on the floor. A player such as Hakeem (Olajuwon) might have given him trouble once or twice, but Russell would figure him out, and that would be that.”
Here are indisputable facts: Bill Russell played from the 1956-57 season until 1968-69. During that time, the Celtics won 11 championships and lost once in the Finals. There was one roster constant – Bill Russell.
Bill Russell was so special that he had a direct effect on a playoff series before he ever played a game. In the spring of 1957, the Celtics were scheduled to play the Syracuse Nationals in a first-round, best-of-five affair. The day before the series began, Syracuse coach Paul Seymour made a startling announcement. Starting center Johnny Kerr, a very good ballplayer, would be coming off the bench. It seems that Russell had given him a very hard time during the season.
“I’m just not going to start out giving Russell an advantage,” Seymour reasoned.
It hardly mattered. The Celtics won Game 1, 108-89, and The Boston Globe headline the next day said it all: RUSSELL’S REFLEXES BEFUDDLED VISITORS. Russell had posted totals of 16 points, 31 rebounds and seven blocks (though not an official NBA category until 1973, Boston writers often attempted to tally his blocks).
“How much does that guy make a year?” inquired Dolph Schayes, the great Syracuse forward. “It would be to our advantage if we paid him off for five years to get away from us in the rest of this series.”
All this, after one playoff game.
Russell would play in 164 more playoff games, where he would perform some of his greatest feats. He averaged 16 points and 24 rebounds a game in the postseason, but all who saw him know that the numbers are largely irrelevant. Bill Russell influenced basketball games as no man ever has, before or since.
“If I had a choice of any basketball player in the league,” Lakers guard Jerry West would say after losing a fifth Finals series to Boston in 1968, “my No.1 choice has to be Bill Russell. Bill Russell never ceases to amaze me.”
Allow Havlicek to describe the sight of Russell caught back on defense with the opposing team attempting to fast break.
“Say it was a 3-on-1,” Havlicek said. “He could take away a whole side of the floor. He would know the tendencies of everyone involved, and depending on whether the man with the ball was right-handed or left-handed he could make him do what he didn’t want to do. He could take a sequence in which there was a 90 percent scoring chance and reduce it to 50 percent. He would essentially say, ‘I’m going to take away one-half of the floor. Go ahead and see if you can score from the other side.'”
Bill Russell was approximately 6-9. He weighed 220 pounds. There are bigger people we would label as “small forwards,” or “3-men,” in today’s game. But there has never been anyone at his size who combined jumping ability, timing, lateral mobility, quick-jumping capability, speed, intelligence and, perhaps most of all, intensity at his position. Everything Bill Russell did was channeled toward one goal – winning the basketball game. That was it. Win the game, and then win the appropriate sequence of games in order to win the championship.
It didn’t matter whether the forum was college competition, where his University of San Francisco teams won back-to-back NCAA titles (in 1955 and 1956), the Olympics (gold, 1956), or the NBA. Bill Russell cared not at all about statistics and everything about winning.
That being the case, it naturally follows that he was generally at his best in the biggest showcase games.
“Russell was a guy who had the ability to rise to the occasion,” recalled Auerbach, who coached Russell for the first 10 years of the great center’s career. “He had a great will to win. He was never interested in statistical accomplishments.”
“His will to win made the difference,” said Bob Cousy, a teammate for the first six of Russell’s Celtics championships. “He did not have the all-around skills of guys like Wilt (Chamberlain) or Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar). But, with his intensity, he raised himself to a level above both of them.”
The league was largely unprepared for him, simply because he was a revolutionary player. Previous big men of prominence had done the bulk of their business at the offensive end. Indeed, there were many skeptics in the mid-‘50s who doubted that Russell would be a great pro because he was so seemingly limited on offense.
The truth is that Russell was an excellent team offensive player. He just happened to know his limitations. He was an excellent passer and pick-setter, and he was very dangerous on the offensive boards. He had a decent little hook shot. He was the original alley-oop finisher. If ignored, he would hurt people. He was capable of doing what had to be done. Witness a 30-point eruption in Game 7 of the 1962 Finals against L.A.
Russell was the first player to help generate his team’s offense from his own defense, as dazed Minneapolis Laker coach John Kundla said after watching Russell lead the Celtics to a sweep of his team in the 1959 Finals.
“That’s quite a twist, isn’t it, having a defensive player mean the difference?” said Kundla. “We don’t fear the Celtics without Bill Russell. Take him out and we can beat them … He’s the guy who whipped us psychologically. Russell has our club worrying every second. Every one of the five men is thinking Russell is covering him on every play. He blocks a shot, and before you know it, Boston is getting a basket, and a play by Russell has done it.”
A year later, the St. Louis Hawks managed to take Boston to a Game 7. Unfortunately for them, Russell didn’t have the flu. He scored 22 points and hauled in 35 rebounds while dominating play at the defensive end. The Celtics won 122-103, which led Bob Pettit, perhaps the NBA’s greatest forward before Larry Bird came along, to pay Russell a tribute.
“I think he played today what could be called one of the great games of all time,” Pettit declared. “He made us think every second we were out there. He made us respect him every second of the game.”
Now, if that was impressive, what could be said about Russell’s performance in Game 7 against the Lakers two years later? In that overtime triumph, Russell finished with the aforementioned 30 points and 40 rebounds.
Or Game 3 of the ’63 Finals against L.A., when he had 38 rebounds and six assists? Or Game 3 of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals against Philadelphia, when he held Chamberlain to a pair of field goals in the first three quarters? Or Game 5 in that same series, when he had 28 rebounds, 10 blocks, six steals and seven assists? Said Schayes, who had become the Philadelphia 76ers coach: “The Celtics can thank the Good Lord for Bill Russell.”
Auerbach was undoubtedly doing just that a year later, when Russell insured that his mentors’ final game as an NBA coach would be a success by scoring 25 points and grabbing 32 rebounds.
Bill Russell played in 11 deciding games during his 13-year career. In other words, he played in 10 seventh games and one fifth game of a best-of-five. The team’s record – his record in other words – was 11-0. His point-rebound averages in those 11 games were 18 points and 30 rebounds (OK, 29.45). You young ‘uns should take time to contemplate that latter number.
It is impossible to discuss Russell without mention of his once and future friend and full-time rival, Chamberlain. The two competed for the final 10 years of Russell’s career, with Chamberlain’s team coming out on top once, in 1967. That was the year when Chamberlain put everything together, averaging 24 points, 24 rebounds and eight assists a game as the 76ers won a then-record 69 games and the championship, knocking off the Celtics in five games along the way.
As his team was about to lose a playoff series for the first time when he was fully healthy, Russell assessed: “Right now, he (Wilt) is playing like me.” Not that Russell ever saw the day he could score with Chamberlain, of course. What Russell meant is that Wilt was entirely focused on winning that season. Chamberlain, who was five inches taller and anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds heavier (depending on his notorious late-career weight fluctuation), put the punctuation mark on a dominant season with a 29-point, 36 rebound, 13-assist performance in the deciding fifth game against the Celtics.
One year later, Russell had yet another last laugh as the Celtics came from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the 76ers in a seventh game, during which, for reasons lost to history, Chamberlain attempted but two field goals in the second half of what turned out to be a 100-96 Boston victory.
There is no doubt that Russell affected Chamberlain on the floor. Despite his overwhelming size advantage and despite his great offensive confidence, Chamberlain could never outplay Russell for any significant period of time.
“He changes a lot with Russell,” Frank Ramsey once observed. “When he wants to take his banker against anyone else, he squats, jumps and shoots. Against Russell, he squats, fakes, shoots, fakes and then shoots. He’s thinking Russell is going to block the shot. He knows the other centers can’t, but Russell can, and it bothers him.”
Everyone has a favorite Russell story and a favorite Russell memory. A generation of Celtics fans grew up listening to legendary announcer Johnny Most screaming, “Blocked by Russell! Blocked by Russell! He came from nowhere!” And so it’s interesting that people such as Cousy, Auerbach and Tom Heinsohn readily cite just one Russell play as the greatest they ever saw. Simply call it “The Coleman Play.”
The circumstance was the final minute of regulation in what turned out to be a double-overtime Game 7 of the 1957 Finals against St. Louis. As written the following day in the pages of The Boston Globe, it was described as follows: “His best play came when he sped from midcourt to go high in the air and slap back (St. Louis guard Jack) Coleman’s ‘sure thing’ layup which could have given the Hawks a 103-102 margin with 39 seconds left in regulation play.”
Said Cousy: “It was the most incredible physical act I’ve ever seen on a basketball floor. I had just led him down the floor for a basket, and his momentum had actually carried him off the floor. Then I looked up and Coleman already had an outlet pass at midcourt, and he was a good four or five steps ahead of everybody. He was going to score, and they were going to get the lead back with 40 seconds or so left to play. Russell took off with those loping steps and they must have been six or seven of the longest steps ever seen. He covered the entire 94 feet in no time at all and blocked Coleman’s shot. Coleman was no speed demon, but he was very athletic and could move.”
This is what the entire basketball world was privileged to see for 15 years, from the time he started making a name for himself as a junior at USF, until, at age 36, when he played his final game in Jack Kent Cooke’s sparkling new Great Western Forum on May 5, 1969. Fittingly, it was a seventh game. And fittingly, it was a Russell artistic triumph (21 rebounds) and a Celtic victory (108-106).
“We won,” Russell said, “because of comradeship, friendship and teamwork.”
There was one more very important reason, the biggest reason. That reason was Bill Russell, the greatest winner American team sport has ever known.
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