Sports

NBA 75: Bill Russell, 1960s Athlete of the Decade (TSN Archives)


The NBA is celebrating players from the NBA 75 list almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is Celtics icon Bill Russell, the five-time NBA MVP and 12-time All-Star who won an astounding 11 NBA titles in his 13-year career. This story, naming Russell TSN’s Athlete of the Decade for the 1960s, appeared in the March 14, 1970, issue of The Sporting News.

BOSTON, Mass. — More than anyone else, the past 10 years in sports belonged to one man — center Bill Russell of basketball’s Boston Celtics. It is on the basis of Russell’s consistence and brilliance during this period that THE SPORTING News has chosen him as its Athlete of the Decade.

The honor takes on added depth and meaning when you consider the finalists he had to beat out. They included Willie Mays in baseball, Johnny Unitas in football, Bobby Hull in hockey and Arnold Palmer in golf.

All four had imposing credentials. Mays was THE SPORTING NEWS’ choice as baseball’s Player of the Decade for his outstanding accomplishments with the Giants. Among his feats, he finished the decade with 600 homers as the greatest right-handed slugger in major league history and second only to Babe Ruth in career total.

Unitas was the dominant quarterback of the National Football League in a decade that saw the Baltimore Colts become a power through his passing efforts. He holds the records for most passing attempts, 4,456; most completions, 2,450; most yards gained, 35,502, and most touchdown passes, 266.

The highest-paid player in hockey and also one of the most exciting, Hull was a fantastic scorer for the Chicago Black Hawks over the 10-year span. He led the National Hockey League in goals for the last four consecutive seasons of the decade. Despite holding out for a few weeks, he scored a record 58 goals in the 1968-69 season.

Palmer, the first golfer to pile up a total of $1,000,000 in purse money, won almost every important championship in the decade, including the Masters tournament in 1960, ’62 and ’64 to go with an earlier triumph in the Augusta classic in 1958. Harassed by a back ailment, he made a comeback and ended the decade by winning the last two tournaments on the pro tour in 1969.

Blueprint for the Defense

But Russell was deemed the finest of the five. He didn’t just play a great 48 minutes of pro basketball; he influenced the entire defensive side of the game. Except in very rare instances, and then for only extremely short periods of time, does defense ever catch up with offense in sports.

It was almost as though Big Bill strode majestically down Mt. Olympus to give defense its first permanent plus. Russell was an original. All those big centers with a flair for defense who have come after him are imitators. They may have had a book on one or two great defensive moves, but Bill was a whole library.

“Until Russell came along, no one ever had blocked shots before in the pros or forced rival teams out of their regular offensive patterns,” said Arnold (Red) Auerbach, the Celtics’ general manager.

“Bill put a whole new sound in pro basketball, the sound of his footsteps,” Auerbach continued. “A guy would be going in all alone for a layup and then suddenly he’d hear these footsteps behind him. Even then he had to figure he was safe because there was nobody in front of him. Then, just as he’d put the ball in the air, this big arm would come snaking over his shoulder and knock the ball out of bounds.

“After this happened a couple of times, guys on rival teams started hearing Russell’s footsteps even when he wasn’t there. Sometimes they’d blow layups. And it was because Russell had them thinking instead of shooting.”

Early in his pro career, it was fashionable to concede Bill his big edge on defense and on the boards and laugh at his shooting. Despite the fact that he is 6-10, Russell averaged only 14 points a game his first year in the pros and his foul shooting was terrible.

The problem was that Bill always had concentrated on his defense and ignored his offense. Even in college, he spent very little time facing the basket. Auerbach’s original instructions to him when he joined the Celtics were to “get me the ball and play defense. We’ve got enough shooters.”

Bill Polished His Shooting

Yet, there is one thing you have to remember about Bill’s offense. It improved rapidly. It was never spectacular. It had none of the crowd-pleasing aspects of Oscar Robertson or Jerry West going one-on-one. But it reached a point of effectiveness where it could not be ignored.

After his first year, Russell’s offense was nearly always there when it was needed — to open up the middle, to break a tie, or to change the complexion of a playoff game. Bill was a joke shooting fouls when the Celtics were 20 points ahead, but in the clutch he was almost as much a guarantee at the foul line as Bill Sharman.

Before Russell joined the Celtics in December of 1956 (after playing with the U. S. Olympic team), Boston had led the league in scoring five straight years. But, in the same period, the Celtics never had won a division title and had a habit of exiting early in the playoffs.

In the next 13 years, with Bill Russell playing center, Boston won nine division titles and 11 world championships. Frank Ramsey left, Sharman left, Bob Cousy left, Tommy Heinsohn left, K.C. Jones left, but as long as Bill remained, it was never: “Can the Celtics win again?” It was always: “By how much?”

This is what Auerbach once told author George Plimpton about Russell:

“The first time I saw him play after we landed him for the Celtics was with the 1956 Olympic team against an all-star team in College Park, Md. He was horrible. I thought, ‘God, I’ve traded Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan for this guy!’ I sat there with my head in my hands.

“After the game, he came over to see me. He said he wanted to apologize — he’d never played like that before. I looked at him and I said I hoped he was right because if his play that night was any indication of his ability, then I was a dead pigeon.

“His first game as a pro wasn’t much, either. Harry Gallatin of the Knicks just ate him up. Russell — well, he didn’t seem to want to hit anyone. Timid. He’d just been married and that doesn’t do a guy any good. At last on a basketball court.

“So the next time we played the Knicks, I thought I’d play Russell at corner and let Arnie Risen play center against Gallatin. Russell came to me and said he wanted to try again against Gallatin. Well, what a job he did on Gallatin — maybe the guy got one shot on him, maybe two. Russell destroyed him. That’s a word you can use about him — he ‘destroyed’ players.”

Still vividly remembered is Russell’s first pro game against Wilt Chamberlain. It premiered before a sellout crowd at Boston Garden on November 7, 1959. Russell grabbed 35 rebounds and scored 22 points. Chamberlain had 28 rebounds and 30 points.

However, Wilt took 38 shots and was only six for 12 at the foul line. Bill, on the other hand, fired just 19 times and had a perfect night at the line — eight for eight. Chamberlain also was called five times for walking. The Celtics won, 115-106.

What did Wilt think of Russell?

“Man, he sure keeps you thinking,” Chamberlain said. “He made me take some awfully poor shots. I figured he’d play my moves. You know, move every time I did. But he didn’t. He played my shots — and he seemed to know every time I was going to shoot.

“Offensively, I’d been told you could overplay Bill to his strong side and he’d never try to do anything about it. Well, that information was wrong. He was tougher with the ball than I expected.”

Since Russell’s rookie season in Boston in 1956-57, the Celtics have appeared in 30 playoff series and lost only twice.

St. Louis beat Boston in six games in the 1957-58 playoffs. Russell was on the bench in street clothes for much of that series with an ankle injury. Philadelphia, with Chamberlain, Luke Jackson and Hal Greer having a super playoff, beat Boston in the Eastern Division finals in 1966-67.

Eleven times in the playoffs the Celtics have been forced the full seven-game distance and won. Eight of those victories were within friendly Boston Garden, but three were on the road — against Los Angeles (twice) and Philadelphia.

Magnificent Rally by Boston

What gave an added dimension to last year’s title series was the fact that the Celtics lost their first two playoff games to the Lakers — a deficit from which no other team ever had escaped in the finals. Boston, and there is probably no better way to explain it, simply went out and repealed the law of averages.

Russell’s ability to turn a game around in the last two or three minutes with his defense (a blocked shot here, a key rebound there, the forcing of a mental error somewhere else) is what won for Boston.

That may sound like an oversimplification, since Bill’s teammates had to keep putting the ball in the basket. But what it amounted to was whether Russell could intimidate his rivals one more time — and he did.

“The best part of Bill Russell never shows in the box score,” said Eddie Donovan, general manager of the New York Knicks.

“You have to know a little about the way the game should be played, and then watch Russell night after night, to really appreciate him.

“Even at 35, he still had enough ability left to turn a championship series around.

“The point is that for two or three minutes, five offensive players sometimes do not add to one Bill Russell on defense.”

Bob Cousy, who played on six world championship teams with Russell, put it this way: “Despite the rest of us, the Celtics never won anything until they got Russell. As a pro, I never saw anyone meet a challenge as well as Russ did. And a lot of it was his pride.

“He simply couldn’t allow himself to lose and still live with himself. He always learned everything so quickly. He never repeated a mistake. If you took Russell off the Celtics and put him on almost any other team, he would have made that team a contender. I can’t think of anyone else you could say that about.”

After the Celtics beat the Lakers for the fifth time in a playoff series last May (once they were the Minneapolis Lakers), Jerry West talked about Russell:

“You can say what you want about individual players in any sport, but when it comes to winning, there is no one like Bill Russell. I know some of those guys in other sports, like baseball and football, are great. But I don’t think there ever has been anyone, in any era, who could compare to Russell.

“What has the man won?” West asked. “Ten championships. Ten championships in 12 years! I play this game myself and I know what this means. I’ve been through it all — the broken bones, the rough stuff, the pressure, the big shots that went in and the big shots that didn’t, and I know.

Only Foes Really Know

“Really, you have to play against this man to appreciate him. Only another athlete could possibly know what I mean.”

To Auerbach, Russell was always the man who revolutionized defense.

“Look, everybody’s got shooters,” Red said. “But the business of matching baskets in this game is a dangerous delusion. You have to stop the other side because it is defense that triggers your offense.

“That’s why Russell was so important. He made other teams rewrite their offensive patterns. He forced them to find new ways to score. And he did this with the most remarkable sense of timing I’ve ever seen.

“I don’t want to sound like the Russians, but Russell invented the blocked shot. He introduced it to pro basketball as a brand-new weapon of defense, something like the antimissile missile the Pentagon is always talking about.

“I’m not saying that nobody ever blocked a shot before Bill,” Auerbach continued. “I’m talking about a man blocking shots against players bigger than he is and then taking the ball away from them.

“With Russell in my lineup. I was always pretty sure we could get more points than the other side.”

It’s one thing to dominate a game. It’s quite another to dominate a game for 10 years!




Source link

Related Articles

Back to top button