I’m Taking Bill Russell. You Figure Out Who’s Next.
When they hold the ultimate all-time draft with every player who ever played in the NBA or the ABA, if I get the first pick, I’m taking Bill Russell.
This will make the second and third pickers happy, I guess, because they will get to fight over Michael Jordan and LeBron James, both of whom possess basketball skills from another galaxy.
But while I’m no smarter than any other civilian, I have made the right choice. As long as basketball has five players on a team, my anchor is Bill Russell, because he will make my other four players better enough to win.
Russell died Sunday at the age of 88, by all accounts brilliant and impatient to the end.
In a career that ran from 1956 to 1969, during which his Boston Celtics won a mind-numbing 11 championships in 13 years, he changed basketball.
He savored that. He regretted only that he couldn’t do more to change America.
Russell’s basketball skill, in a sense, was deceptive. He wasn’t a particularly good shooter, averaging 44% on field goals and only about 15 points per game for his career. He shot 56% on free throws. Heck, I can hit 56% of my free throws.
His stats tilt more toward rebounds, where he averaged 22 per game for his career. And while he was up there around the rim, he turned shot-blocking from an occasional accident into a strategic ploy. Shot blocking was so incidental it wasn’t even recorded as a statistic before Russell. More than any other player, he turned it into an important element of the game.
When Russell grabbed a rebound, or maybe before, he was looking for a teammate to whom he could whip the ball to start a fast break. His point guard for his first half-dozen years, Bob Cousy, wasn’t particularly fast, but he was a great ball handler and he was in perfect synch with Russell on how to convert that fast break into two points for the Celtics.
Russell talked often about he played the game for the stretches of five minutes, or 30 seconds, when everything merged into poetic motion.
“The game would just take off,” he co-wrote with Taylor Branch in the 1979 book Second Wind, “and there’d be a natural ebb and flow that reminded me of how rhythmic and musical basketball is supposed to be. I’d find myself thinking, ‘This is it. I want this to keep going.’ ”
Those interludes were more transcendent, he mused in the book, because they were so fragile.
“All the years I played basketball I looked for that perfect game,” he wrote. “I never had that perfect day, and I graded myself after every game to see how far in my own mind I fell short. The best score I ever gave myself was 65 on scale of 100. It was a game in Boston in 1964.”
That’s a mark of a great athlete, or a great singer, or a great writer, or any great artist. There’s always another level.
Russell reached a few of those new levels along the way. When he blocked a shot, he didn’t follow tradition and swat it into the 20th row. He directed it to a teammate, to trigger that flow.
By later imperfect estimates, Russell might have blocked three, maybe four shots a game. That doesn’t sound like much over 48 minutes. But the numbers don’t reflect the intent or the effect.
“I didn’t have to block every shot,” Russell said. “I just wanted them to think I might.”
Russell’s long-time coach Red Auerbach put it a little differently. After the Celtics beat the St. Louis Hawks in a tough Game 7 to win their first title in 1957, Auerbach said that Russell “introduced a new sound to the game tonight. The sound of footsteps.”
Russell loved to talk about basketball as an art form, intricate choreography that at its best incorporated all the players from both teams. It might all sound like something out of a New Age seminar except Russell translated that theory into victories.
Commentators talk about how a guy who was 6-foot-9 and weighed 220 could never have held his own against later centers like Shaquille O’Neal, or that he couldn’t have kept up with a faster, quicker, more multi-dimensional player like Jordan or Kobe Bryant.
It’s fun fodder for discussion. It’s also irrelevant, since it was a different game in Russell’s years. But we also shouldn’t forget that Russell played against Wilt Chamberlain, maybe the most imposing slab of granite in NBA history. Wilt dominated Russell in statistics, outscoring him better than two to one. Russell had a big edge only in one stat: He had 11 championship rings and Wilt had two, despite playing on teams with the likes of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.
To oversimplify a bit but not necessarily a lot, Russell understood how he could maximize his team’s chance to win. When his first backcourt posse of Cousy and Bill Sharman retired, he adjusted his game to the faster Sam and K.C. Jones and the more athletic John Havlicek. He worked with slower old-school guys like Jim Loscutoff, Tommy Heinsohn and Don Nelson, and specialists like Satch Sanders.
The phrase “team player” lost its edge years ago, but you dust it off for Bill Russell. Comb through all the old videos of his games, which are fascinating, and try to find one where Russell slams home a dunk, thumps his chest and postures to the crowd. You won’t.
Bill Russell played in 21 winner-take-all games over his career. His team won 21 of them. I’m going to suggest that’s not a statistical fluke.
And then there’s this. You really wish that when you talk about someone who was as marvelous an athlete as Bill Russell, you could keep the conversation on basketball.
Unfortunately, that’s hard to do with any black athlete who was part of the often clumsy and grudging integration of professional sports in the quarter century after World War II.
Russell, like his black peers, got the racist letters and couldn’t get a sandwich or a room in much of the South. He and his black Celtics teammates flew home before a game in Kentucky one night because they couldn’t get the same basic accommodations as the white players. Russell had called out racism before that and would continue to call it out for the rest of his life.
What made Russell’s situation more acute is that he was playing in Boston, a city whose history of racial tolerance has often felt more like Birmingham’s.
Many Boston sports fans during much of Russell’s time made it clear they preferred the also-ran Bruins and the mediocre Red Sox to the championship Celtics machine that Russell led. It’s been suggested by smarter people than I that it might be worth connecting two dots here: 1) Russell was the first black NBA coach and the Celtics were the first NBA team with an all-black starting lineup, and 2) the Red Sox were the last team in baseball with a black player on the Major League roster.
A more graphic illustration, recently noted in the HBO documentary Winning Time and the Showtime drama City On a Hill, is that multiple championships into the Celtics’s run, some locals broke in Russell’s suburban Boston home. They took nothing. They spray-painted racist insults on the wall, smashed his trophy case and defecated in his bed.
Let’s charitably assume they were morons. Let’s realistically assume they weren’t the only ones who didn’t make Bill Russell feel welcome around Boston.
Russell responded by calling Boston “a flea market of racism.” After he retired, he attended only one Celtics game in 30 years. When his number 6 was retired in 1972, he insisted the ceremony be held in an empty Boston Garden, just teammates and no fans.
“He had animosities toward Boston, as most people know,” said Heinsohn. “And they were well-founded animosities, I might add.”
In 1999 Russell did attend a public ceremony re-retiring his number. At the risk of speaking for someone who spoke eloquently for himself, perhaps the fondness of his memories for what he did during those championship seasons eventually countered some of the anger.
It’s important to note that based on Russell’s book and his periodic public comments over the years, he did not spend his life enveloped in bitterness. He wrote about his friendship with Chamberlain, with whom he would share Thanksgiving dinner, and with colleagues like Baylor and Oscar Robertson.
He worked in media for a while after he left the game, and for the rest of his life he weighed in where he felt he had a voice — like supporting the athletes who knelt during the National Anthem. He received honors up to the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
All of that is part of the reason we’ve lost someone we will miss. But it’s not the reason he’s my first pick on the all-time team. I want him because of those five minutes, or 30 seconds, that made both Bill Russell and a short, slow kid in front of a black and white TV set love basketball.
Russell was right that it’s never perfect. But gee whiz, he came close.