Bill Russell redefined the game of basketball and brought new meaning to the word "defense". "Defense is a science…not a helter-skelter thing you just luck into. Every move has six or seven years of work behind it," Bill Russell was quoted as saying in Champion of American Sports.
"On the occasion of the NBA's 35-year anniversary in 1980, it was Russell and not Chamberlain, Mikan, or Oscar Robertson whom members of the Professional Basketball Writers Association tabbed by a wide margin as 'the greatest player in the history of the NBA.'
Russell was among that truly rare handful of athletes-Babe Ruth comes immediately to mind in baseball-who dominate their sport so thoroughly that they actually change the way the game is played and perceived by future generations," Peter C. Bjarkman wrote in The Biographical History of Basketball.
In A Century of Sports, Time-Life editors wrote, "Russell a 6-foot-9 center, changed the game with his defense. He rebounded, triggered the fast break, and made shot blocking an art form long before it became an official statistic. Just the 'sound of his footsteps,' said Auerbach intimidated opposing players."
"In fact, nobody before or since has played defense the way Russell did. He didn't bend rims-he bent minds. Russell blocked shots at will and blocked them not for show… but for psychological value. Russell used the blocked shot as a deterrent, to make you fearful of shooting anywhere within his range," Tony Kornheiser wrote in his article, Nothing But A Man.
Georgetown coach John Thompson, was quoted by Kornheiser as saying, "Russell would jump over you to block your man's shot… The word with kids now is 'Switch!' But I tell them the word on the Celtics was 'Russ!' You could hear it all over the floor. If your man beat you, all you could hear was people yelling 'Russ!'
"Russell redefined defense, he put the honor in defense. He's the guy who made people think there was something to it…."
According to Bjarkman, in All The Moves in 1975, Neil Isaacs identified the defensive shot rejector and rebounder, which were classic Bill Russell, as being one of the five major evolutionary changes in basketball.
Remarkably, basketball had not always come so easy to Bill Russell. It was something he had had to work at in high school and was not even successful at it until his senior year. He had been cut from tryouts for his junior high school team in Oakland and barely made a junior varsity squad as a high school sophomore.
In Champion of American Sport, Pachter quoted Russell as saying; "I should epitomize the American dream for I came against long odds, from the farthest back to the very top of my profession. I came from the Depression…I was not immediately good at basketball. It did not come easy."
In his senior year Bill Russell won a scholarship to the University of San Francisco. By the 1954-55 and 1955-56 season, San Francisco was the top-ranked college basketball team in the country and Russell was the nation's top player. After graduating from USF, he played on the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic basketball team at the 1956 games in Melbourne, Australia. Following that he signed with the Boston Celtics for $24,000.
According to Pachter, "In his first year as a professional, Russell provided the Celtics with the defensive dazzle they had been missing. With Russell in tandem with Bob Cousy, the team had an unbeatable one-two combination. They won the National Basketball Association championship that year and every year from 1958-59 to 1965-66. Cousy said of Russell 'he was the quickest big man in the league. Along with his intense desire and competitiveness and that unselfishness about him on the court, he had the instinct and reflexes and he wanted badly to be the best and keep us the best.'
"Russell, who enjoyed exceptional quickness and agility, not only reduced the effectiveness of the opposing center, but by playing in effect a one-man zone (zone defenses were technically illegal in the NBA) he clogged up driving lanes and prevented easy lay-ins by the guards. With Russell in the middle Boston's other four players could gamble by pressing the ball everywhere, causing numerous turnovers without fear of becoming victims of "chip" shots. Russell's rebounding and precise outlet passes also ignited Boston's fastbreak offense. With Russell leading the way, Arnold "Red" Auerbach's Celtics captured nine NBA championships between 1957 and 1966," Rader wrote in American Sports.
The main attraction in 1960s basketball was the playoff duels between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. The Time-Life editors reported that the two met for the first time during Chamberlain's rookie season in 1959 and Boston won. Chamberlain scored 30 points and Russell had 35 rebounds. Russell "used selfless play to become the NBA's Most Valuable Player five times, and his match-up against Wilt Chamberlain stand among the greatest the game has ever seen."
According to Rader, the continued success of Russell and the Celtics caused Chamberlain to gain the "reputation of being a "loser." He was bigger and stronger than Russell, a far better shooter in his prime, yet only once did his team defeat the Celtics in the playoffs. Fans tended to blame Chamberlain. They believed his selfishness, uncooperativeness with teammates and coaches, and obsession with his salary accounted for the failure of his teams to win the big games. Russell, on the other hand, fit perfectly the public mood of the 1960s. He projected an image of unselfishness, cooperation, and of being "modern.""
Russell also evolved into a symbol that became synonymous with black rights. Kornheiser wrote, "Russell represented a new type of black athlete: the educated, outspoken, defiant star seeking-no, expecting-respect just for who he was. In 1961, Russell boycotted an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky, when two of his teammates were refused service in a hotel coffee shop."
Kornheiser quoted John Thompson as saying, "Russell was the first man I ever heard call himself 'black.' This was when it was an insult to call a man 'black,' when it was similar to calling a man a 'nigger'. Bill Russell called himself a black man. He was one of the first men I ever saw to truly acknowledge the fact that he was black, and to identify very strongly with his roots in Africa."
Bjarkman wrote "Boston's most dominating cage star was also the first black superstar in professional basketball, and he occupied this role during a decade when racial segregation was still the law of the land in nearly a quarter of the nation… Russell was always outspoken and always controversial unable to conceal his rage about racial injustice.
In Boston of the '60s Russell was thus destined to be a figure who personified unpopular and distasteful racial rebellion despite all his athletic heroism."
Because of his stand Russell became very controversial. He also refused to sign autographs, which didn't help his public image. According to Bjarkman, "Boston's greatest star on Boston's greatest-ever team (likely the NBA's greatest-ever team) was thus also a painfully controversial figure who robbed that very team of a far greater audience than the surprisingly slim one it enjoyed. The Boston Celtics and Russell owned the NBA in their heyday, but they were always a backroom act in Boston-poor cousins to the ever-popular Red Sox in baseball and NHL Bruins with whom they shared the spotlight."
Although Russell seemed controversial to the older more traditional whites, he had the respect of young educated whites and blacks. Because he stood up for what he believed in, when it wasn't always a popular thing to do, he became isolated.
According to Kornheiser, "To blacks, Russell was mythic. His ability to win year after year allowed him to push the limits of what a black athlete could acceptably say." Russell's personality also isolated him from friends and teammates. "Of course, he paid the price for being Bill Russell. When you hold everyone at arm's length you never feel anyone's embrace. He was always respected but never really liked. His refusal to sign autographs angered his critics and confounded his friends."
However, as Kornheiser points out, rather than being punished for his controversial stance, Russell was rewarded. He was made the first black coach of the NBA succeeding the retiring Auerbach in 1966. He led the Celtics to two more championships before he retired from Boston in 1969.
Russell returned as coach and general manager with Seattle from 1974 through 1977 and the Sacramento Kings a decade later but had little success in either position. According to Bjarkman he later became a "pro basketball television analyst-first with ABC's NBA Game of the Week and later with NBA broadcasts on Ted Turner's WTBS cable network-he would prove to be one of the most honest and insightful color commentators the business has ever known. But the broadcast career was short-lived as the private Russell withdrew even further from the public limelight. Over the past decade he has remained largely detached from his own towering legend, making few appearances at NBA functions and shunning fans."
Kornheiser probably sums up Russell's career best when he writes, "Years after Russell was gone, as the story goes, Auerbach walked onto the court at a Celtics practice, and the players were kidding around about who had the best moves, and who had the best shot, and who was the biggest star. And Auerbach waved his hand at them dismissively. "If Number 6 were here," he said, "All you sorry bastards would be shaking in your shoes."
A Century of Sports
Editors of Time-Life Books, 2000
Time Life Inc.
The Biographical History of Basketball
Peter C. Bjarkman 1998
Champions of American Sport
Edited by Marc Pachter with Amy Henderson, Jeannette Hussey, and Margaret C. S. Christman, 1981
The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution Harry N. Abrams., Inc. New York
Benjamin G. Rader, 1983
edited by Michael MacCambridge, 1999
Hyperion, New York
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