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If we’re all on a playground in the afterlife and we’re choosing up sides to decide who goes to heaven or hell, then my first pick is Bill Russell.
You can have anyone you want. If you take Michael Jordan, I get LeBron Jam. Larry Bird gets you Magic Johnson. Stephen Curry or Jerry West. And so on. They are almost incompatible because none of their skills sets are unique. All of them — anybody you would pick with eternity on the line — would, first of all, be an offensive-end-of-the-court star.
But I’d have Russell, by far the greatest player who barely needed to touch the ball yet scored enough for the sake of proper balance without being fed. I’d have Russell, who got the ball back for his team by both rebounding and controlled shot blocking better than anybody ever, even Wilt Chamberlain. I’d have Bill, who covered his man but, if you lost yours, made the guy wish that you still were defending him.
Russell would subtly change everyone’s game — his whole team’s for the better and everyone on your team’s for the worse. But no one would force him to change his game. We would win. Don’t think so? Enjoy hell.
Russell, who died Sunday at 88, retired from the NBA in 1969 just before I joined The Washington Post’s sports department. I never covered his death. He was only one time I met him. (I just said, “Thank you.”)
With each decade, however, the number of sportswriters who had any memory of Russell as a player decreased, and Russell was condemned with the faint praise that he was a legend from an age when most TVs were black and white. I was among a small group of keepers of the elusive “The Russell Story”. “Russell is the Greatest of All Time” flame. This is the view that has made me the most sad. “poor old-timer” looks. But I persevere.
Jerry Brewer: Bill Russell made America great by demanding more from America
Russell is not the GOAT, but he has 11 rings in pro sports, more than any other player, and it was all in 13 seasons. Russell almost had an “undefeated” career — all world titles, every year.
He’s not the GOAT because he was the greatest defender in NBA history. In fact, he may be the greatest defensive force in any of the four major sports — more impactful in preventing scoring than any NFL pass rusher, NHL goalie or pitcher who only starts every few days.
Russell is more than the GOAT for his talents. He is a rebounder (22.5 per game), a shot blocker (the best), enough scoring (15.1), smart passing, and igniting fast breaks with outlet passes as well he has ever been.
Russell was all of these things and more. He was also the player-coach for his two championship teams. However, what Russell had to a greater degree than any player I have ever seen in any sport was ferocious, indomitable seriousness of purpose, wedded to elite intelligence regarding both his sport and his opponent’s psychological weaknesses. His walk to center court evoked a wise, dark warrior.
Russell sprinted the court — sweat dripping from his goatee, his long limbs pumping — as if he was prepared to die of exhaustion before permitting his team to lose. His presence, his competitive menace, his fearless, reckless abandon in midair and his desire to glare into the opponent’s psyche and break some crucial gear made him exhilarating and frightening to watch.
I remind my colleagues that Russell was 6-foot-10 and his wingspan was 7 feet 4. In a famous anecdote, Russell met his perfect foil — Chamberlain — for a photo op when Wilt entered the NBA. The photographers wanted to see a side-by, with the subtext being that Wilt, a 7-1, 275-pounder, was Goliath to Russell.
Russell asked Russell for a shot where they held their hands as far over their heads as possible. Russell had a slight advantage because of his long arms. Bill was taller in some basketball sense — and as a champion high jumper in college, Russell probably had a vertical edge.
Anybody who thinks Russell didn’t “play big enough”This century is likely to be wrong.
Okay, I have to make a confession. In a week when it is all too much, we should just be united in our celebration of a distinguished American Life. I’m biased. Russell was and is my favorite athlete.
In 1956, Russell was drafted into the NBA. This was the same year that I became addicted to sports. The Celtics dominated the NBA’s weekly national telecast, so Washingtonians got to see him often. That he became one of the most prominent athletes to take strong political stands in the 1960s — and through his life — only added to my admiration then and keeps his memory powerfully relevant now.
In honor of Bill Russell’s 11 titles, here are 11 of his greatest moments
I didn’t go to college in New England because the Celtics were on TV there. But, considering what I got to see from 1965 to ’69, that might have been a good reason.
Russell faced Wilt during all four of those postseasons. In the first three years, Wilt was joined in Philly by three other future Hall of Famers — Hal Greer, Chet “the Jet”Walker and Billy Cunningham, along with hulking star Luke Jackson and Wali “Wonder” Jones. Six-time all star Larry Costello emerged from the bench in just two years.
In the fourth season, Wilt was traded to the Lakers to join Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, creating a Three Supernova team that the 21st century hasn’t matched, since at the time, that trio was believed by some to include the best guard, forward and center in history.
In three of those four seasons, the Celtics won the title.
In Russell’s final game — a Game 7 for the ring, naturally — Chamberlain took only eight shots and was so competitively broken by Russell’s career-long ownership of him that the Lakers benched him in the late moments of A 108-106 match.
Wilt was rattled that Russell would pick where he wanted to swat the most “unblockable”Do you fallaway jump or ignore his fearsome power-dunk? Or was he afraid of the free throw line (45%) that year?
Russell held Chamberlain down to 11.7 points per contest in the 1969 Finals. Chamberlain was still powerful enough offensively to average 27 point per game the following season. Celtics bit players Larry Siegfried and Don Nelson outscored Wilt — while playing a fraction of his minutes.
In his early years, Russell ran with Bill Sharman (Bob Cousy), Tom Heinsohn (Frank Ramsey), Sam Jones, and K.C. Jones — all future Hall of Famers — as running mates. Russell turned John Havlicek, an aging Sam Jones, and obscure, modestly gifted men such as Em Bryant, Siegfried and Nelson into champions when I saw him in college.
Russell was also the coach in the previous two titles. Red Auerbach became team president.
Many who knew Russell personally will remember the injustices that he suffered and overcame in his life to build a complex character with insight, conscience, depth and compassion.
I only know what I saw. For eternity, I’ll pick Bill.