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The Boston Globe

Sports

Bill Russell, pride of the Celtics, at center stage again

Ask him about Game 7 in 1969.

"Oh, you mean the balloon game?’’ he cackles, as only Bill Russell can.

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"I knew they couldn’t win it,’’ he says. "I just knew it. At the beginning of the game, I told Bailey Howell it was literally impossible for them to beat us. It was just not possible for them to beat us.’’

Final score, in case you’re a bit late to this saga: Boston 108, Los Angeles 106.

For two years as a collegian and 13 years as a professional, it very often was impossible for opponents to defeat a team anchored by the 6-foot-9-inch Bill Russell in any game that really mattered. In those 15 years, his teams won 13 championships. Toss in an Olympic gold medal in 1956, and an unshakable case can be made that William Felton Russell is the greatest team-sport athlete this country has ever known. That he is also one of the most independent thinkers and magnetic personalities in the history of American athletics thickens the plot immeasurably.

The man whose shamefully belated tribute will take place at the FleetCenter this evening is now 65 years old. He played his final game -- yes, the "balloon’’ game -- on May 5, 1969. In the interim, the NBA he left behind has grown from a mom-and-pop operation into a worldwide conglomerate with offices in Paris, London, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, Melbourne, and Mexico City. In the interim, we have seen Kareem, Dr. J, Magic, Larry, and Michael, not to mention Sir Charles and Shaq. What we have not seen is another Bill Russell.

Before Bill Russell came along, basketball was essentially a horizontal game played by landlocked Caucasians. And then . . .

"I could kick the net and jump up and touch the top of the backboard,’’ he points out. "I introduced the vertical game to basketball.’’

There. He said it. I introduced the vertical game to basketball. It’s not a boast. It’s simply the truth. Russell brought an entirely new element to the game.

He’s proud of that, and who wouldn’t be? It must be a silent kick for this man to fire up his dish out there in his Mercer Island home to watch one of the many games he views each week and see all those pups playing in the manner of Russell, not that any of them can play with the effect of Russell. He knows they are playing his game, not George Mikan’s game.

Offensive catalyst, too

You honor Russell when you tell him you appreciate how much he changed the game, but it is also very easy to anger him. That is done by writing the following sentence: Bill Russell was a great defensive basketball player.

"I know I was a great player,’’ he points out, "but I was not a great player on just one half of the court. Maybe my view is wrong, but I feel very strongly that to say I was a great defensive player diminishes my achievement. They say, `Oh, he was a great shot blocker,’ but, in reality, I was as good, if not better, offensively. I had a complete game.’’

Stand back, here come the critics. What’s he talking about? He never even scored 20 points a game for a full NBA season. How many times did the Celtics go to Russell when they needed a basket? Didn’t his jersey number (6) pretty much equate to his range?

"Teams used to take 100 shots a game,’’ he explains. "Let’s say each team now takes 80. How long does it take to get off a shot? You take each man’s time with the ball in his hands, whether it’s dribbling, shooting, passing, or rebounding. What does it add up to? Four or five minutes? That leaves 43 or 44 minutes. Now, of those 43 or 44 minutes, what else is going on, and what can I do to affect the outcome of the game? Those are what I call the `subtle skills,’ and they are very important.

"People talk about my scoring. I could have scored more. Say I averaged 16 points a game in an average year. If I wanted to go to 19 or 21 a game, I’d have to take four or five more shots. That would have disrupted the offensive continuity of our team. My idea always was for the energy to flow from me to them. There was a period of time when we had seven double-figure scorers on our club. For me to score more would have required energy that I thought could have been better used elsewhere.’’

Players came and players went during Russell’s 13 years as a Celtic, but there was always one constant: The offense, as well as the defense, revolved around him. He was a focal part of all the set plays, as a passer, pick-setter, or shooter. As much as Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, or Larry Bird, he had the wondrous capacity to take a quick mental snapshot and know where each of the other nine men on the floor were at any given time. And there was something else, too.

"The first year after I retired,’’ Russell continues, "John said he missed me more on offense than defense, and that was very gratifying. I could have run any of our plays from any spot on the floor. That was very important to me, and it came in very handy when I coached, because if one of the guys were having difficulty I could understand the problem. Also, if I knew all the plays from any spot on the floor, the coordination had to be better.’’

Psychological edge

He is not into the business of rating players. If you think Michael Jordan is the greatest NBA player, Russell says you are entitled to your opinion. However . . .

"I never say any one player is, or was, the best player,’’ he declares. "Everyone now says Michael Jordan is the best player. Michael Jordan is a friend of mine. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone better. But there were other great players. Before him there was Oscar, Pettit, Baylor, Wilt, Bird, and Magic. Times change. I say you can be as good as those guys, but not better.’’

As for Bill Russell’s place on that list?

"I had some skills that were obvious and some skills that were not so obvious,’’ he says. "I think I had the best set of total skills.’’

By that he means he believes he had the best combination of physical, mental, and emotional development. The physical part was self-evident. The competitiveness, likewise. But what set this man apart was the brain power. No one of even remotely comparable skill has ever approached the game with more mental agility and psychological shrewdness. He always knew what had to be done, and how to do it.

"One year [1969] we were playing Philly in the first round,’’ he recalls. "I blocked the first seven shots Luke Jackson took. My object was to take him out of the series, so they’d have to play another center who was far less efficient, and they would not be able to utilize one of their strengths.

"In the next series we played New York. They had beaten us something like six or seven times that year, and when I looked at the stats I saw that I had only averaged 7 points a game. In the first game of the series I took 23 shots, or something like that. What I had set out to do was disrupt the flow of their defense. Willis Reed loved to roam and help out, and during the season that’s exactly what he did. I had to let him know that in this series he would have to worry about me.’’

He was then in his third, and final, season as a player-coach. It is a source of at least minor irritation to him that people tend to dismiss his coaching role during championship years 11 and 12. It is a further source of irritation that people have not given him proper credit for the job he did in Seattle during the early ‘70s. "I helped save that franchise,’’ he says matter-of-factly.

The truth is he is as proud of having coached the Celtics to the 1968 and 1969 championships as anything he has ever done. People seem to think that either Red Auerbach was some kind of silent Gepetto, or that the team somehow operated on automatic pilot. The Celtics had a coach, all right. He just happened to be their best player.

It is certainly true that the Celtics of the time were a veteran team that hardly needed a heaping dosage of X’s and O’s. They knew how to play the game. But someone had to select a final roster. Someone had to say what time the bus left. Someone had to make decisions on who played, and how much. Someone, in short, had to be in charge. Russell was very comfortable in that capacity.

"Every time we went to Cincinnati people wanted John to do this and do that, and he always tried to accommodate everybody,’’ says Russell. "The demands on him were unbelievable. He finally came to me and said, `Russ, what am I going to do? I can’t say no.’ I said, `Here’s what we’re going to do. If there’s something you really want to do, do it. If it’s something borderline, or something you’d rather not do, you come to me in front of the whole team and ask me for permission in front of the guys. I’ll say no. I’ll be the heavy.’ ‘’

Russell tried to accept individual player idiosyncracies -- to a point.

"If you do something for someone once, they appreciate it,’’ Russell maintains. "Do it four or five times, and they come to expect it. Do it more than that, and they start to demand it. I tried to respond to requests just enough to keep the team functioning smoothly.’’

He had, after all, studied at the foot of the master.

Friends and rivals

Russell has long been on record as saying that he never could have become the complete NBA force he was playing for any other coach. From the beginning, he understood Red and Red understood him.

"I had complete trust in Red,’’ Russell salutes. "It was off the scale. And the reason I had such trust was that whatever Red did was geared toward one thing: winning.’’

He is equally grateful to a pair of early teammates for getting him acclimated properly to the NBA.

"After about 15 games I could get off any shot I wanted,’’ he says. "That’s because Bob Cousy and I were so coordinated. I will always be thankful to him for that. He was the first one to figure me out and understand how best to play with me.’’

The true one-on-one mentor, meanwhile, was Arnie Risen, then in the 12th year of what would turn out to be a Hall of Fame career.

"No one could have been nicer or more helpful to someone who was there to take his job,’’ marvels Russell. "He said to me, `I’m going to be in your ear during every timeout. I’ll tell you how I would handle a situation. You may or may not want to do it that way. That will be up to you.’ ‘’

There is a belief that all great sports figures are defined by their chief rivals. Ruth had Cobb. Ali had Frazier. And Russell had Chamberlain.

It was the greatest subplot in the history of American team sport. For 10 years Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain waged war for both individual and team supremacy. Absent the other, either man would have had a far easier professional life, but neither would be as remotely fulfilled today.

"People say it was the greatest individual rivalry they’ve ever seen,’’ Russell says, "and I agree with that. I have to laugh today. I’ll turn on the TV and see the Knicks play the Lakers, and half the time Patrick isn’t even guarding Shaq, and vice versa. Let me assure you that if either Wilt or Russ’s coach had ever told one of them he couldn’t guard the other guy, he would have lost that player forever!’’

The challenge was greater for Russell.

"After I played him for the first time,’’ Russell recalls, "I said, `Let’s see. He’s 4 or 5 inches taller. He’s 40 or 50 pounds heavier. His vertical leap is at least as good as mine. He can get up and down the floor as well as I can. And he’s smart. The real problem with all this is that I have to show up!’’ (Lots of cackling.)

"But I did have something going for me,’’ he continues. "I was quicker -- not faster -- and I was much better laterally. So I realized that what I had to do in order to compete with this man was to make him move laterally as much as possible. I had to make him work for his points. There are `hard’ points and there are `soft’ points. Sometimes a guy can get 25 or 30 points and not hurt the other team. Another guy can get 10 points and kill you. I tried to make Wilt get `soft’ points.’’

Two sides to Boston

He live two lives during those 13 years in Boston. His Celtics life was idyllic. He enjoyed playing basketball in general, and he truly enjoyed playing with those particular people for that particular coach. This is one reason he is willing to have his number formally re-retired.

"I am so proud to have my number up there with those great players,’’ he explains, "and I want everyone to know that. We are all friends for life.’’

The time spent outside the Celtics’ cocoon wasn’t always so pleasant. He was -- horrors! -- a strident Negro in a city where deference was expected of its minority citizens, superstar athletes included. He chose not to sign autographs. He said more than once that all he owed the public was a great performance. He was dignified and aloof. He bought a house he liked in a town (Reading) where, as it turned out, he wasn’t wanted, and it was vandalized. He says he’d do it all again.

"I didn’t really care what they thought,’’ he insists. "I saw a house. I liked it. I bought it. I was the one making the mortgage payments. It didn’t matter to me what anyone thought.’’

It still doesn’t.

"My citizenship,’’ he points out, "isn’t a gift. It’s a birthright.’’

To some, he will always remain inscrutable. Why wouldn’t he allow the Celtics to retire his number properly 27 years ago? Why has he never set foot in the Hall of Fame? Why has he spent the past decade and a half refusing most interviews? Why is he consenting to this tribute, 30 years after his last game?

The last question is easiest to answer. The proceeds will go to the National Mentoring Partnership.

"There are no `other’ people’s kids in this country,’’ he says. "They’re the children of the nation, and I refuse to be at war with them. I’ll always do anything I can to make life better for a kid.’’

Beyond that, he is mellowing, at least temporarily, although he’ll never use that word. There’s no statue, no plaque, no nothing to celebrate him in this town, and that’s just plain ridiculous. We’ve had far more than our share of athletic demigods in Boston, but none who ever accomplished more than Bill Russell.

And just to make sure you don’t think he’s gone completely soft, he makes it clear that he is all interviewed out. He has said what he has to say.

"This,’’ he cackles, "is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.’’

Bill Russell is a once-in-a-lifetime man. And while he may reside in Seattle these days, he will, in truth, be coming home tonight. Why, just a couple of weeks ago, Russell was a guest on NBC when the following exchange took place.

Hannah Storm: "We have with us Hall of Famer Bill Russell.’’

Bill Russell: "No, Hannah, make that Boston Celtic Bill Russell.’’

Thanks, Bill, we needed that.

***

Why Bill Russell matters:

Because he took a game that bore a startling resemblance to the contemporary women’s game and made it into the aerial extravaganza it remains today.

Because he was the missing piece of the puzzle for a perennial bridesmaid Celtics team of the ‘50s.

Because he demonstrated to his teammates that he was uninterested in statistics and concerned only with winning.

Because he introduced the blocked, not to mention the altered, shot to basketball.

Because he treated the blocked shot not as an ego-bolstering showoff maneuver as so many do today, but as a clever weapon geared to gain possession and, if possible, to ignite a fast break.

Because he was an astute offensive player who made it his business to know the job of every player on the floor.

Because he was the first player to rebound a shot, pass it out, and sprint down the court for a return pass and an easy 2 points.

Because if the next rebound available were the difference between an eternity of bliss and an eternity of servitude for planet Earth in some intergalactic tournament, Bill Russell is the man you’d want going for the ball.

Because he didn’t take nights or afternoons off.

Because he studied opponents more deeply than any man in the history of the game.

Because there wasn’t a man who played with him during 13 years as a Celtic whose game wasn’t enhanced by being in the lineup with Bill Russell.

Because he truly loved and respected his teammates as athletes and human beings, and they knew it.

Because he had 25-32 numbers in Game 7 on April 13, 1957.

Because he was the only thing that stood between Wilt Chamberlain and at least a half-dozen NBA championships.

Because this 56 percent career free throw shooter was a man everyone from Red Auerbach to a guy in the top row of the second balcony wanted on the line when the team needed those 2 points in the final two minutes.

Because he really did make defensive plays no one else has ever made, before or since.

Because he wore a goatee when no one else in sport had so much as an Adolphe Menjou mustache.

Because he put his money where his heart was when he invested in a Liberian rubber plantation.

Because he had 30 points and 40 rebounds in Game 7 against Los Angeles in 1962.

Because when he hit the infamous guy wire against the 76ers in 1965 he didn’t whine or blame the refs even though the man guarding him was clearly out of bounds; what Bill Russell did was go into the huddle and beg someone to bail him out.

Because he missed 16 games in 13 years.

Because as a coach in Boston he won two championships in three years and won 60 games the other year.

Because opponents lived in fear and awe of him for 13 years.

Because he enabled Red Auerbach to fulfill his personal vision of basketball.

Because he never cared for honors, believing them to be entirely fallible subjective judgments, often conferred by people not truly qualified to judge him in the first place.

Because Paul Anka’s "My Way’’ applied even more to him than it did to Sinatra.

Because as a coach in both Boston and Seattle, he cared not for reputations and gave everyone a fair chance.

Because anyone who knows him would say he has the world’s most recognizable laugh.

Because his rebounding was an art form.

Because he was one of the great passing centers of all time.

Because he had that funky little hook shot.

Because he ooped the alley before anyone else.

Because he anchored one of the great college teams of all time.

Because he cowed an entire world with his spectacular play in the 1956 Olympics.

Because when Red Auerbach instructed him to shut out the opposing team’s star during one of those ‘60s State Department tours, Russell obediently followed orders, and we’re talking 0-0-0.

Because he bought a house where he wanted to buy a house and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought.

Because when he felt like wearing a cape around town, he wore a cape.

Because he averaged no fewer than 22 rebounds a game for nine consecutive seasons.

Because he was the only man alive who could block one of Wilt Chamberlain’s shots when the big man was in his prime.

Because he could go scoreless and still affect a game in a positive manner more than any player in history.

Because he averaged more rebounds in the playoffs than he did in the regular season all 13 seasons he played.

Because he averaged more points in the playoffs than he did in the regular season in eight of his 13 seasons.

Because he was voted the greatest player in the history of the NBA at both the 25- and 35-year checkpoints.

Because there would be no reason to change that vote now.

Because the documentation proves, beyond dispute, that with two NCAA titles, an Olympic gold medal, and 11 NBA championships from 1955 through 1969, he is the greatest winner who ever played a team sport in the history of this country.

Because he was never once accused of playing by anything other than the rules.

Because without him there would be neither the 11 championships the Celtics won with him in the lineup nor the five that followed.

Because if he were placed into the current NBA, with the same physical, mental, and emotional package he had when he played, he would be the best center in the league and his team would be the favorite to win the championship.

Because, in sum, he had the deepest understanding of how to parlay one’s gifts into winning of any athlete we have ever known.

Because he made sure those damn balloons in the Forum ceiling stayed right where they were on May 5, 1969.

Because in his final 14 years as a basketball player, Bill Russell’s team participated in 21 winner-take-all contests (nine NCAA tournament games, one Olympic gold medal game, 10 Game 7s, one deciding Game 5), and Bill Russell’s team won all 21.

Because if all the Boston no-questions-asked, first-ballot Hall of Fame superstars -- and we have been better blessed in this regard than any other city -- were assembled in one room for a gala dinner, William Felton Russell would be placed at the head of the table.

That’s why.

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