What about Bill: Does Russell belong in the GOAT conversation?
Posted June 14
All during the NBA playoffs, the debate raged. Who is the GOAT -- the greatest of all time? Michael or LeBron? Certainly both are worthy candidates. Both became known for their ability to defend and both have performed on offense in many dimensions, with a style suited for today’s HD Generation. Both have won multiple championships, six in Jordan’s case. But to find the greatest winner, and arguably the NBA’s most important player ever, one most go back to the days of black and white TV. And in fact if you ask the question in an internet search, who has won the most league championships-you will quite literally find Bill Russell’s picture embossed alongside the answer. ELEVEN!
Russell’s individual numbers back in the day occasionally got lost playing against the prolific and incredibly talented Wilt Chamberlain. But except for 1958 and 1967, the year Chamberlain led the Philadelphia 76ers to the title, Russell and the Boston Celtics always won. And Russell did put up strong individual numbers-scoring more than 14,500 points and collecting more than 22,000 rebounds. Russell averaged an astounding 22.5 rebounds per game for his entire career! Three times he averaged at least 24 rebounds or more for an entire season. His worst year? A mere 18.6 one season. The man could pass too-averaging better than 4 assists per game throughout his career. And Russell could block shots. I would argue inch for inch no player ever blocked shots like Bill Russell. But no stats on blocked shots were kept in the 50’s and 60’s. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Bill Russell invented the blocked shot. And all those defensive rebounds and blocked shots led to fast break baskets at the other end. Celtics coach Red Auerbach, the architect of the lethal Boston break, once estimated that 80% of Russell’s blocks led to offense going the other way. And amazingly, Russell was so athletic, that he often filled a lane on the break after getting a block or rebound. He didn’t often get the ball-the magician Bob Cousy had many great choices and often kicked the last pass to streaking forward Tom Heinsohn. But Russell was never far away.
Five times Russell won the NBA’s MVP award. When Auerbach stepped down in 1966, Russell added Head Coach to his resume, at the urging of Heinsohn. Russell became the first African American coach in all of professional sports. And as player coach, he won two more championships in 1968 and 1969.
You want to talk championships? The great Jordan won six with the Chicago Bulls. John Wooden and UCLA won ten in their dynast years-and seven in a row. But Russell and the Celtics? They won eleven in just thirteen years, including eight in a row. Here’s the most amazing stat to me: There were fourteen times Bill Russell’s teams played a series clinching game. In those games, where it was win or go home, Russell and the Celtics went 14-0.
Russell Grants Access-With Conditions
It was during the final championship run that Russell received a unique request from the late Frank Deford, then with Sports Illustrated. Deford, who was fascinated by Russell’s dual role as star center and head coach, asked for extra access to Boston’s players, staff, and meetings, that he might write a behind the scenes account of this penultimate playoff run.
Understand, Bill Russell’s view of life was inalterably shaped by his Louisiana childhood. Russell laid it out this way in an episode of Sundance Channel’s fine program “The Iconoclasts:”
I was born in rural Louisiana in the segregated South. Unless you experienced that, there is no way to tell you what that was like.
-- Bill Russell “The Iconoclasts” (2007)
So, no way is Bill Russell going to just talk to Frank Deford once or twice a day about what this championship quest is about. Russell agreed to Deford’s request on one condition-that Deford essentially immerse himself in every single aspect of Boston Celtic basketball. Russell told Deford, “you will observe everything we do. You will be at every practice, every meeting, every locker room chalk talk, and every team meal. And you will stay with me in my hotel suite every night.”
Deford agreed. He forsook all other obligations. He left his family behind for two months. He did nothing but observe and chronicle, this final edition of Celtic Pride with Bill Russell.
Through it all, Russell and Deford grew to respect and appreciate one another. A great deal. Then after the Celtics put the wrap on one more championship season, it came time for the two men to part company. Deford actually drove Russell to the airport. Russell’s words, according to Deford: “I’m sorry, I’d like to be your friend.” Deford (no doubt reflecting on all they had done together over the past months) replied: “But I thought we were friends.” Russell explained: “No, I’d like to be your friend, and we can be friendly, but friendship takes a lot of effort if it’s going to work, and we’re really going off in different directions in our lives, so no, we can’t really be friends.”
In fact, Russell and Deford did go separate ways into busy lives but they did reunite years later for a lengthy automobile ride and visit that Deford wrote about in 1999. But during the 30 years between the time Deford was “imbedded in the Celtic Championship run” and the reunion trip with this all time NBA great, Deford often found himself pondering Russell’s deep thoughts about what constituted friendship.
A Promise from Father to Mother
Bill Russell’s mother, Katie, taught him to believe that poverty was temporary. And that “if someone says something negative to you, that doesn’t have anything to do with you. That has to do with them.” William, as he was known growing up in Louisiana, lost his mother when he was just twelve. Before she died, she made Bill’s father Charlie promise that he would send Bill and his brother both to college. Charlie acceded to this final request from his wife, having no idea how he would make it happen.
The Russell family moved to California-Oakland. Ultimately, Bill took part in track. He could run and jump. Really run and really jump. Very late in his high school career, he began to grow. Rapidly. By the time he graduated from high school, Bill Russell stood 6’10.
As a basketball player, Russell was not on anyone’s radar. But after that growth spurt, University of San Francisco Coach Phil Woolpert got a look at Russell and liked his size and athleticism. He offered a scholarship. Russell was ecstatic about being able to fulfill his mother’s dream that he would get a college education.
Changing the Game
He would also revolutionize basketball. Players in the mid-fifties were taught not to leave their feet. Russell would soar into the air during practice to block shots. Woolpert, whom Russell respected, would holler at him, “you can’t do that!” Russell would respond, “Coach, I just did.”
Russell and teammates K.C. Jones, Hal Perry, endured racism. Fans would throw change at the USF African American players as they warmed up. Sometimes Russell would pick up the coins. “Here Coach,” he would say sardonically, “hold this.”
The Dons of San Francisco began winning. Every game. They won the 1955 NCAA Championship, with Russell dominating in the post. But there would be more racism. The center of another team-a white center-was chosen MVP.
USF kept winning. 55 straight over two seasons. And the Dons won a second consecutive national championship. This time Russell was named MVP. But the star big man, still burning from 1955, said in an interview for “The Iconoclasts” that “I rejected their critique. On the way home, I threw that trophy in the trash.”
Bill Russell would win so many more trophies, both team and individual. Indeed, when Russell opens his home to the media (and that is a very rare occasion) one cannot avoid seeing his incredible collection of hardware. Yet Russell says, “no one is less impressed with all this than I am.”
For Russell it was all about winning. “To be successful,” Russell said, “I had to be in a state of positive rage.”
Alongside success, Russell valued spending time with teammates most. As recently as ten years ago, Russell suggested that many of the old Celtics still call one another to talk on a regular basis. In fact it was the concept of team (as well as race relations) that prompted a Bill Russell boycott-one of his many stands on principal. The Celtics were supposed to play an exhibition game back in the Jim Crowe days in the state of Kentucky. This was to be a homecoming for Boston star Frank Ramsey. Russell refused to go, because Boston’s black and white players would have to stay in separate facilities in then segregated Kentucky. Ramsey understood.
Much has been written about Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers-the part they played in integrating baseball. Rightfully so. As to the subject of integrating the NBA, it seems to me the lead chapter must be about Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Satch Sanders, and of course Bill Russell and how they helped propel the Celtics to unparalleled success in a racially divided city of Boston.
Jim Lampley of HBO Sports calls Russell “The Fredrick Douglass of Sports.” Lampley, who has observed race relations and social movements in a 45 year career of covering sports from basketball and football to boxing and the Olympics, says Russell “accelerated the pace of change via the strength of his personality and his unique ability to win. He didn’t ask for change. He demanded it and embodied it. He was the change.” Lampley notes that every team Russell played on from USF to the Olympics to all those Celtic teams not only won but dominated. Lampley adds, “Russell made team sport the refuge for black talent and he compromised on nothing.”
I was not at all surprised when Sundance Channel featured Russell on its groundbreaking series “The Iconoclasts” which ran from 2005-2012. The series focused on unique Americans who were “rule breakers” or people who “break from the norm.” Russell was paired with his friend, the actor Samuel L. Jackson, who grew up watching and admiring Russell and the Celtics. Said Jackson: “he had an attitude that was infectious to all the guys around him that made them as cold blooded and ruthless as he was.” Jackson said Russell’s boldness and his success gave him the confidence that he too could succeed in life.
You will never begin to understand Bill Russell until you appreciate that he is at once, consistent and contradictory.
-- Frank Deford: “TheTeam Player Bill Russell” (2000)
Early in his career Russell used to run onto the court during player introductions like everyone else. One night, he was nursing a pulled muscle. The trainer suggested that he not make any sudden movements. Russell decided to walk out for pre-game intros, and after seeing the reaction, decided he would do that for the rest of his career. Others might run and jump around, but Russell would simply walk out onto the court, fold his arms over his chest, and look around as if to say “the man is here!”
Russell was the only one of ESPN’s 50 “Athletes of the Century” who did not give the network an interview. Russell allowed his story to be told by teammates, observers, and his daughter Karen, an articulate graduate of the Harvard Law School. Russell has gone through periods where he did not give interviews. Deford wrote that in the late 90’s, Russell was miffed that an ESPN announcer had praised the 64 Celtics as “Bob Cousy’s last team.” Cousy had retired by then.
I remember during the 70’s Russell spoke on a college campus and would not begin speaking until all recording devices were turned off. Russell had no interest in multi media coverage saying “I came to talk to the people in this room.” Russell did ultimately speak to this largely student group, challenging lifestyles in the generation where “anything goes.” Russell was unrepentant: “If you can’t get your rap together without drugs and alcohol,” he told the students, “you haven’t got much.”
Russell does not give autographs. He decided early in his career that signing a piece of paper was “very artificial” and he wasn’t going to do it anymore. And so Bill Russell never signed anything for anyone. Not even his teammates. When people approached him, he would simply say “I’m sorry I don’t sign autographs.” If the person responded politely, Russell would offer to shake hands-even chat for a minute or two. Consistent and Contradictory.
And yet he can be very engaging. My Aunt Diantha tells of a big dinner party one Thanksgiving in Westchester County New York. Bill Russell was one of the guests. My aunt is not a huge sports fan, but she found Mr. Russell to be charming and gracious, someone very interesting to talk to in and around helpings of turkey, dressing, and desert.
Russell showed the world his warmer and fuzzy side during a 1973 Bell Telephone commercial with his friend and former teammate Ronnie Watts. Watts, who played collegiately at Wake Forest, brought out the best in Bill, especially his infectious laugh.
Thinking the Game
After retiring from the Celtics in 1969, Russell became a TV analyst, though he took a break to become Coach and GM for Seattle from 1973-77. I found his laid back commentary refreshing, different from the talkative Jack Twyman or the somewhat shrill Oscar Robertson. Russell thought the game differently. I remember watching one NBA game where a team that had been trailing by 20, made a dramatic rally and got to within two points midway in the fourth quarter. The team with the dwindling lead called time out. “OK, “ Russell said, “Now they’ll have to make what I call the second rally. They’ve spent all that energy getting back into the game. Now they’re close and they’ll relax a little. They can’t do that. The second rally takes more energy than the first one.” Russell was spot on. The trailing team actually took a brief lead, but couldn’t sustain it-wound up losing the game by six or eight points.
Russell faded from view for many years. Deford wrote that Russell was often perfectly content holed up in his home in Seattle for a week at a time, reading voraciously and watching television. The burglar alarm was on. The telephone off.
And yet since former NBA Commissioner David Stern announced the renaming of the playoffs’ MVP Award as the Bill Russell MVP Award, the game’s winningest player has become more visible. Russell appeared on the court Monday night, his 6’10 frame supported by a walking cane, when Golden State star Kevin Durant was honored as the star of the Warriors’ victory.
I especially remember Russell’s presence during the 2014 NBA Finals, won by San Antonio. Though Kawhi Leonard won the MVP, it became clear watching that Russell felt a special connection with Spurs great Tim Duncan. I remember thinking, Perfect! Both players started in sports other than basketball-track for Russell, swimming for Duncan. Both players came late to the game, yet rapidly improved in college and the NBA. Both could run and jump. Both put team first and both actually played for just one team their entire professional careers. Both made shot blocking into an art form, not sending missiles into the stands, but keeping the ball in play and using their defensive work to create offense with a fast break. Both could really pass. Russell in fact once told Duncan the way he played the game reminded Russell of himself more than any other player.
Points and offensive numbers-indeed the ability to create offense-matter most to many of the people who follow basketball. That’s fine. But when you talk about championships, team play, confronting social challenges, and interacting with others in a way that is truly unique, Bill Russell’s story is as large as the man himself.