(Third in a series: (Witnessing the Greatest Players of All Time)
The most prolific scorers have always captured the adulation and attention of NBA fans. I’m certain that fans over 25 years old, and some younger, would say that Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time. Today, LeBron James is ‘king of the court’. But no player has ever been the driving engine behind multiple world championships to the degree of the Boston Celtic’s Bill Russell.
Growing up as a high school basketball player in Los Angeles, I was obviously a fan of the Lakers. In 1960, I was a freshman when the ‘Minneapolis Lakers’ moved to Los Angeles. They had a highly touted new player by the name of ‘Jerry West’, and the great ‘Elgin Baylor’ was still playing near the top of his game.
Because I was a Laker fan, I naturally hated the Boston Celtics, because my team could never beat theirs when it really counted. I must admit that before the Lakers came to L.A., I watched the Celtics and particularly admired ‘Bob Cousy’. Cousy was six feet tall, as was I, and was a great ball handler, possibly the greatest there ever was. But, when the Lakers came to town, my dislike of the Celtics grew.
The one player who retained my devotion was Bill Russell.
Russell was a standout at the University of San Francisco. Although he and other African-American players were responsible for the University’s enormous success, they received continuous racial attacks, especially on the road. The three starters, Russell, K.C. Jones, and Hal Perry led USF to a record of 28-1 in Russell’s junior year in 1954. They went on to win the National Championship where he was named the MVP. He averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds, was an All-American, and was the only player blocking shots with his unique ability and quickness. Adhering to racial policies of the time, a white player was picked as the ‘Northern California Player of the Year’. Adding to his childhood experiences, Russell became a vocal champion for the civil rights movement. His staunch beliefs put him in unfavorable status with some sports writers and league officials.
In 1956, he was drafted by the Boston Celtics. Coach Red Auerbach considered Russell the missing piece to his perfect team. His defensive ability and rebounding skills fit into his ultimate plan.
Through some deft negotiations, Auerbach managed to draft three future ‘Hall of Famers’ in the same evening; Russell, K.C. Jones, and Tommy Heinsohn.
Before he played in his rookie year, Russell played for the 1956 U.S. Olympic Team. In the final game against the Soviet Union, he led the U.S. team to an 89-56 victory claiming the gold medal. The American team averaged 53.5 points a game, led by Russell who averaged 14.1. Avery Brundage, head of the International Olympic Committee, claimed that Russell was ineligible because he had already signed a professional contract, but Russell prevailed. He later said that if he was denied a position on the basketball team, he would have competed in the high jump.
Russell joined the Celtics in December of 1956. He participated in 48 games, averaging 14.7 points a game, and a league record 19.6 rebounds. There were five future Hall of Famers on the team; center Russell, forwards Heinsohn and Frank Ramsey, and guards Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy.
In the NBA finals the Celtics faced the St. Louis Hawks, led by the legendary Bot Pettit. They won the seventh game in double-overtime, and earned the Celtics their first World Championship.
In the 1957-1958 season, Russell averaged 16.6 points and 22.7 rebounds. In the championships, Russell had a foot injury and sat on the bench for games 4, 5, and 6. St. Louis won the final sixth game with Pettit scoring 50 points.
In a strange turn of events, which would re-occur, Russell was named the league MVP, but only to the second team in the All-Star game. The league claimed there were better centers, but he was more valuable overall to his team.
In the 1958-1959 season, Russell led the Celtics to the finals again, sweeping the Minneapolis Lakers in four games. Lakers’ coach John Kundla told reporters that they had no fear of a Celtic team that did not have Russell as part of it.
Possibly the most remembered events in his career were his battles with 7-foot-1-inch center Wilt Chamberlain. ‘Wilt the Stilt’ joined the NBA in 1958. Anticipation was high for fans who awaited the first game between him and Russell. Chamberlain had the physical advantage by more than four inches and over 50 pounds. The match-up was seen as a great individual player vs. a player that made his team great, and therefore won Championships.
Although Chamberlain outscored Russell in the regular season, 30 to 14.2 per game, and out rebounded him, 28.2 to 22.9, the Celtics won more games. In playoff competition, Chamberlain outscored him 25.7 to 14.9, and outrebounded Russell 28 to 24.7, but the Celtics defeated Chamberlain’s teams 7 out of 8 times in the playoffs, and never lost a seventh game. Russell’s team won 11 World Championships, while Chamberlain’s won only 4.
After Russell joined the Celtics, they won those 11 World Championships between 1957 and 1969. He was named MVP five times, and won the rebounding championship five times. He was named to the All-Star team 12 times. He was also selected as a member of the 25th, 35th, and 50th ‘All NBA Teams’.
There are no statistics for blocked shots, but he surely holds the record. Other stats include: Points 14,522 (15.1 ppg), Rebounds 21,620 (22.5 rpg), and Assists 4,100 (4.3 apg).
Although Russell’s individual statistics are formidable, his value to his team far surpassed personal success. No player will ever be part of a team that wins 11 Championships in their lifetime again.
Russell’s value to his team was evident to those of us who were fortunate enough to watch him play. Whatever the team needed in any particular game, he provided. Winning was his only goal on the court, and that he accomplished with an unbelievable level of success.
For the Las Vegas Guardian Express