Last week I wrote an article about Kevin Garnett, and in it I tried to describe a nebulous concept...something that KG brings to the game that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James don't, something that defines "good basketball" in a way that goes beyond stats and titles. In the comments to the article I got into a debate with someone that protested me including LeBron among the players that don't have that mysterious "it" that I was trying to describe...as the poster pointed out, LeBron is a great player and a great passer. But my response was that LeBron could be the best player in the game and average assists left and right and still not have "it"..."it" is about how a player approaches the game..."it" is about not having to be told that the team always comes first..."it" is about realizing that no matter how gifted a player is physically, what goes on from the neck-up is just as important in defining their game as what goes on from the neck-down. In short, "it" is the Celtics Way.
And the Celtics Way is defined by Bill Russell.
The same Bill Russell that, at 1:30 pm EST today, stood on a platform with the President of the United States and received the HIGHEST award that the U.S.A. can give a civilian: The Presidential Medal of Freedom. This award recognizes people who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." Russell received this award alongside, among others, a former president of the United States, a leader from the Civil Rights movement, a billionaire, an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor, and some of the foremost artists of this era.
Think about that for a minute.
But why? Out of all of the great players that have played professional basketball, why is Russell the only one that has even won this award? Why did the NBA decide to rename the Finals MVP award after Russell? OK, that one is easy, because he won 11 championships...but why did he win all of those championships? How did he win all of the time, when it is pretty universally agreed to that his competition at that time included perhaps the most physically gifted basketball player of all time? Just what was it about Bill Russell that made him so special? I got my first answers to some of those questions last summer.
Last summer I participated in a project that went back and looked at every season in NBA history back to the dawn of the shot clock era in the 1950s, examining in depth the greatest players of each season. When the project began there were more than 30 of us gathering facts and debating on who the best players have been in the 2000s, but by the time we got back to the 50s there were only about 10 or 12 of us still hanging on to learn about NBA history. And because I was one of those that stuck around, I was able to learn more about Bill Russell in those weeks than I had ever known in my life. Russell had retired from the NBA almost a decade before I was even born. I'd never seen him play outside of a few grainy highlights, and just about all that I knew about him was that he won an absurd number of championship rings and that he has been historically styled as Wilt Chamberlain's foil. But in participating in this project, I finally started to get a hint at what all of the fuss about Russell was really about.
First of all, Russell is a champion. I know that's remedial knowledge for most Celtics fans, but it still bears mentioning. Russell won the league championship in high school. He then went on to the University of San Francisco (the only school to offer him a scholarship), and won two National Championships. He captained the U.S.A. National Team in the 1956 Olympics, leading the team in SCORING and bringing home the Gold Medal. And as we all know, Russell joined the Celtics in 1956 and led them to 11 NBA titles in the next 13 years.
OK, we get it. Russell won all of the time, everywhere he went. But there had to be a reason for that, right? I mean, nobody is THAT lucky, right? What on earth was Russell doing that he won ALL of the time?
Well, let's start with the fact that Russell changed the entire way that basketball was played. You see, before Russell, it was considered awful fundamentals to jump on defense. A "good" defender was supposed to stay flat footed so that they could react quickly as opposed to jumping and getting out of position. Russell had different ideas. He had the height of a center but was slender and athletic, in fact a world class high jumper. So instead, he developed a unique concept called help defense, in which he would defend not only his own man but would also make quick rotations to help out his defensive teammates when their man got by them. And when anyone challenged the rim, Russell would use his athleticism to jump up and block or alter just about every shot taken. It was a radical concept at the time, and it was so far ahead of its time that the rest of the basketball world couldn't keep up. How far advanced? Well, ElGee, one of the project participators, came up with a unique way to estimate team offense and defense from back in those days before all of the stats kept today were in rotation. Take a look at the Celtics defensive ratings in the Russell years:
Drtg Rank Diff from League Avg. Diff from 2nd place
1956 90.4 6/8 -1.5 -
1957 82.4 1/8 4.8 2.5
1958 82.0 1/8 5.2 3.9
1959 83.0 1/8 5.8 4.4
1960 83.9 1/8 6.2 1.8
1961 83.0 1/8 8.2 4.6
1962 84.3 1/8 8.7 6.3
1963 86.6 1/9 9.0 6.1
1964 82.7 1/9 11.5 5.6
1965 83.1 1/9 9.9 8.1
1966 87.3 1/9 7.1 4.0
1967 90.8 1/10 4.9 1.7
1968 92.0 2/12 4.6 -
1969 88.4 1/14 6.8 2.8
1970 98.5 7/16 0.6 -
For those keeping track at home, the Celtics were one of the worst defenses in the league in 1956 before Russell got there, once he got there the Cs led the league in defense in 12 of 13 years, including by ridiculous margins for most of the 60s, and then after he left the defense once again fell to average. That, folks, is dominance.
So, Russell defined one part of the Celtic Way as "defense", when he changed the game. No surprise there, because defense has become his calling card. But to win every year at every level for two decades takes more than just defense, no matter how great. It takes more. It takes a mind, a mental approach, that goes above and beyond just knowing how to score. And when it comes to the mental part of basketball, Russell is a genius. Have you ever listened to him talk about basketball? It's like Stephen Hawking breaking down a physics problem, only with the laid back manner and laughing wisdom of a grandfather. Take a gander at a few Russell quotes, and see if you aren't smarter about roundball than you were a few seconds earlier.
On why the game is about so much more than scoring: "There are 48 minutes in a game. It takes a second -- a second-and-a-half, maybe two seconds -- for a three point shot. And if you add up all the shots taken in a game -- free throws don't count because the clock stops -- but if you take all the seconds added up shooting and rebounding it comes to about three minutes. Now out of a 48-minute game three minutes are concerned with shooting and rebounding. What is going on the other 45 minutes?"
On the importance of understanding your team: "I had one coach, he lost a bunch of playoff games and he said, "I can't stand it. We can't beat anybody in the playoffs, but I always hear you've got to make adjustments." I said, "You have to make adjustments, but you can only make adjustments that your particular team can make." You can't say, "We've got to do a great job defensively," if you don't have anybody that can play defense. You can't say, "We have to do a better job rebounding," if you don't have any good rebounders. So what you may have to adjust is tempo -- up tempo or maybe slow down, so that you can make a better rebound team. You can play the game so the rebounds become less important to the outcome. Those are the kind of adjustments that your team can make. But you have to know your team."
On why you should learn everyone's position, not just your own: "And the key was that Chet Walker had been killing us. And I knew that I could guard him. And the reason I knew I could guard him is his moves were very deliberate. As part of my teaching myself, I learned -- we had six plays and nowadays they number those positions. One is point guard, two is shooting guard, three is a small forward, four is a power forward, five is a center. Well, I made a point to learn how to play all those positions on all six plays. Now not that I ever wanted to or hoped to play in those other positions, but in knowing those positions I know the problems that go with that position. So that if my teammate needed help I can help. And on defense I watched these guys, how they play defense, and I know how to guard almost any position. And I physically took over Chet."
And there's so, so much more. If you have a minute, click on that link and read the entire 9-page interview. It's like a dissertation on good basketball. Especially the part where he talks about the difference between himself and Wilt Chamberlain, even couched as it is in oblique references. Russell says that he and Wilt were never rivals, they were actually competitors that happened to play the same position. But not rivals, because "rival" suggests that there were winners and losers, whereas he and Wilt both won because they had different agendas. He hints that while Wilt defined success by the stats he could amass (sound familiar, LeBron?), Russell learned in college that he could put up great stats and still be passed up for awards so instead he decided that he would define success by winning. It was a team sport, so the best measure for success was how well your team did. Team before me. Ubuntu. The Celtic way.
So Russell was a physical, defensive monster. He was also a basketball savant with the perfect, team-first mental approach to the game. But there was another very important part to Bill Russell, the part that took him beyond a sports legend and into the realm of true heroism that is worthy of presidential awards: Russell faced some of the biggest social ills of his society and didn't just overcome them...he conquered them.
You see, Bill Russell was born as an African American at a time in our history when that was a crime worthy of punishment...worthy of being treated as less than human. There are stories out there about Russell's childhood...how his father reportedly had a shotgun pointed at him by a white gas station attendant and was threatened with death if he didn't stay in the station and allow all of the white patrons to be served before getting his gas, or how his mother was accosted by a police offer for wearing what he deemed to be a "white woman's dress". Even once he was grown and a professional basketball player, he faced bigotry and racism in Boston. While establishing the foundation of the Celtics' basketball dynasty, Russell wasn't even allowed to stay in the same hotel with some of his teammates. On a daily basis Russell faced hardships that dwarf most of the issues faced by the premature millionaire athletes of today.
But instead of bowing to the pressure or the strain of a rough situation, Russell faced it with defiance and quiet dignity. Unlike many athletes today, he was active in social issues and made civil rights an important part of his legacy. Russell had a front-row seat for Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a Dream" speech. So now, 50 years later, does it mean more to Russell to receive such a prestigious honor from the first African-American president in U.S.A. history? I'll let him answer that: "I told him (President Obama) that it was great that he was the first black president but that's not what I liked most about him — not that he was a black president but that he was president and that he reached the top of his field on intelligence, ingenuity and hard work."
Intelligence, ingenuity and hard work. That was how Bill Russell overcame adversity and made himself a national hero. He let the crucible shape him, strengthen him, and then he went out and proved himself its master. He performed his craft at a level that had never before been seen, and may not have been seen since. He went on to become the first African American coach in a major American professional sport, and he won a title doing that as well. In all he won 18 championships in 21 years of organized basketball. And along the way, he laid the groundwork for the greatest dynasty in the history of sports, a legacy that extends until today.
So, congratulations to William Felton Russell, American hero, on your prestigious award. It is very, very well deserved. And thank you for giving us the Celtic way that even a transplanted Celtic fan like me can recognize and appreciate, 60 years later.