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Bill Russell: most valuable player ever

Celtic legend dies at 88, leaving behind great hoops legacy of winning and intangibles

Celtics Coach and Players Being Carried by Jubilant Fans

Celtic legend Bill Russell is arguably the most valuable player ever in NBA history, and perhaps even in all of team sports.

He died Sunday at age 88 following the deaths of Celtic legend teammates Tom Heinsohn, John Havlicek and Sam Jones in recent years. Only the almost 94 year old Bob Cousy has outlived them all.

Russell’s teams won more championships than anyone else in North American sports with 11 in 12 trips to the NBA Finals. And this was by a marginal high school player who shared the 15th and last jersey on his high school team with another player at one point, a player who got one scholarship offer to his hometown school of San Francisco, and a player who could not shoot outside five feet with any accuracy.

After all, he shot just 44 percent from the field and 56 percent from the foul line over his 13-season pro career. His best shot was a short hook, which he typically banked in off glass, something you rarely if ever see now.

Yet due to great intangibles, athleticism, a unique skill set, relentless competitiveness and a great mind for figuring out opponents and bringing out the best in his teammates, he won big at every level.

At San Francisco, his Dons teams won consecutive NCAA titles in 1955-56 and he spearheaded a then-record 60-game win streak. He then anchored the 1956 U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning squad.

Boston Celtics General Manager Red Auerbach And Player Bill Russell Photo by Joe Dennehy/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Red Auerbach was able to draft Russell by loaning the Ice Capades to Rochester so they would not pick Russ, then dealt popular Hall of Famers Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to the Hawks for their pick. It turned out to be one of the greatest trades in NBA history.

Joining the Celtics late in his rookie season after those autumn Olympics in Melbourne, Russell supplied the defense, rebounding and passing that propelled previously-offense minded Boston to its first NBA crown in 1957. They edged the Hawks in double overtime in Game 7 125-123 to ignite the greatest dynasty in North American pro sports.

After losing to St. Louis and star Bob Pettit (as well as Macauley and Hagan) in their epic 1958 Finals rematch - Russell was slowed by a sprained ankle as Pettit scored 50 points, including 19 of the last 21 points in a 110-109 Game 6 clinching win - Boston rebounded to win the next eight NBA titles.

Eight in a row.

UCLA won seven straight NCAA hoop titles from 1967-73. The Yankees of Yogi Berra won five straight from 1949-53. The Canadiens won four in a row a few times in the six-team NHL, and again in the late 1970’s with an expanded league. No NFL team has won even three in a row during the Super Bowl era.

Eight straight.

No other NBA team has approached that. The Jordan Bulls authored two three-peats in a grossly expansion-diluted NBA of the 1990’s. The Lakers of 2000-02 also won three in a row, although the 2001 title is greatly tainted by the officiating scandal in the West Finals vs. a superior Kings team. The league was also at a competitive low at that time, too.

The Larry Bird Celtics won it all in 1984 and 1986, but just missed a three-peat by dropping the 1985 Finals to the hated Lakers. The Showtime Lakers, aided by playing in a very weak West, won two of three twice in the 1980’s.

But never eight in a row.

Some might criticize the Celtic run under Russell by pointing out there were only eight to 10 teams when they won his 11 titles in 13 seasons. They only had to win two or sometimes three series at most to win it all, instead of four like now in the bloated playoff system.

Maybe partly true, but there were also less weak sisters to beat up on. Plus, the top two seeds today rarely lose to the lower seeds in the first round, as most of those series are basic formalities.

One can argue that the competitive balance was better then and teams played each other more often, breeding contempt and familiarity. Imagine how much better the NBA would be now if the league was comprised of only 20 teams, let alone 10 teams, keeping only the top third of players in the league.

Jean Beliveau, center for the Montreal Canadiens dynasty, won 10. Beloved Yankee catcher Yogi Berra won 10 World Series for New York. Celtic teammates Sam Jones and John Havlicek won nine and eight rings, respectively. But Russell tops them all with 11.

It is hard for me to gauge Russell’s game since I never saw him play live, as he retired in 1969. ABC broadcast NBA games then through 1973, and when CBS took over the network rights, ABC destroyed or taped over almost all of their NBA vault.

In a way, this lack of footage also adds to his mystique. Blocked shots were not kept as official NBA stats until four years after Russell retired. So how many blocks did he get per game? Ten? 15? Five? No one knows. Not to mention all the shots he hurried, rushed or intimidated into missing by his presence and reputation. My guess is that he probably averaged around seven or eight actual blocks a game.

All that is out there on NBATV and YouTube of Russell playing for Boston are a few games - Game 7 of the 1962 Finals, Game 6 of the 1963 Finals at LA, Game 5 in 1964 vs. the Warriors, part of Game 4 of the 1967 East Finals vs. the 76ers - and the final quarter of his career, the fourth period in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals.

Los Angeles Lakers vs Boston Celtics, 1969 NBA Finals Set Number: X14024

That game was the last of his career and featured incredibly high drama. Russell was going against his long-time nemesis in Wilt Chamberlain for the last time after close to 150 memorable head-to-head encounters.

That center duo defined the 1960’s NBA and remains the greatest one-on-one rivalry in league history. (Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson are #2, but they rarely guarded one another). The behemoth duo faced off 143 times in the regular season and playoffs, with Russell’s Celtics winning nearly 60 percent of the time and taking four out of five playoff series.

But in 1969, an aging underdog Boston club was playing a Game 7 in The Finals on the road for the very first time during Russell’s remarkable run. The two-year old Fabulous Forum was poised to celebrate the first Laker NBA title since moving to Los Angeles from Minneapolis in 1960. And making it sweeter would be that it came against the hated Celtics, who had won the title on LA’s home court in 1963 and 1968 in Game 6 battles.

This was the sixth time they had met in the championship Finals in that decade, with the Celtics winning all of the previous five series, often in dramatic fashion. Two of those had gone seven games, with Boston winning in overtime in their 1962 epic (as Russell posted 30 points and 40 rebounds), 110-107. With the score tied, Laker guard Frank Selvy missed a last-second 17-foot shot just before the buzzer that would have won Game 7 in 1962. Of course, Russell corralled the rebound to ensure OT and Boston went on to win in The Garden.

Four years later in Red Auerbach’s last game as head coach in 1966, Boston almost blew a big Game 7 lead at home before holding off a late Laker rally led by Jerry West to win, 95-93. Red had lit his infamous victory cigar almost too soon in his final game, which would have been a major gaffe many would have reveled in. Russell wouldn’t let it happen.

In all those Celtics-Lakers Finals though, LA never had a center to negate Russell. But in 1968, the Lakers traded for Wilt Chamberlain to comprise the first Big Three superteam, as he combined forces with Jerry West and superstar forward Egin Baylor. The Lakers were now the prohibitive favorite to unseat the defending champion Celtics.

Yet in Game 7 of the historic 1969 Finals, Boston raced to a 91-76 lead after three periods as LA seemed paralyzed by being the favorite at home for the first time in a Game 7. Russell was 35, worn out by the duties of serving as head coach and player for the third year in a row. He and Wilt both picked up their fifth fouls in the fourth period, adding to the drama. Chamberlain never fouled out of a game in his NBA career. The desperate Lakers then began a late charge, led by West. Jerry would author a 42-13-12 triple-double despite a strained hamstring.

The Lakers cut the deficit to one point late but could never get over the hump, mentally or physically, after losing so many close title games to Boston and big Bill. Despite great talent, they just could not quite overcome the mental block that was mostly placed there by Russell and Auerbach, haunted by the memory of so many close, gut-wrenching title-game losses. “We were better than the Lakers physically, emotionally and in most cases, intellectually,” Russell would explain of their 6-0 Finals mastery of the talented LA teams of the 1960’s.

Russell blocked a crucial late reverse layup attempt by backup center Mel Counts, a former Celtic. Counts was in the game because Wilt had taken himself out of the game with a twisted knee. With Counts in his place, the Lakers continued to rally. Chamberlain told teammate Tom Hawkins to relay to the coach that he was ready to go back in.

But Laker coach Butch Van Breda Kolff would not put Chamberlain back in the game, telling messenger Hawkins they were doing better without the center he snidely called “The Load” behind his back. The coach and Wilt detested each other, ruining team chemistry and a potential title for the talent-laden squad.

Celtic reserve Don Nelson, who had been released by the Lakers a few years earlier, put the final dagger in his old team. Laker Keith Erickson poked the ball away from Havlicek from behind, but it went right to Nelson at the foul line.

A good shooter, Nelson shot the ball straight but a bit long. It hit the back iron, bounded straight up in the air above the backboard, and came straight back down through the net. The improbable bouncing basket killed the Laker rally, the final Finals bad luck break in their minds against the Celtics. Boston held on 108-106 to win the 11th and last title of the Russell era. He and Sam Jones retired as champions.

West was named Finals MVP after averaging 37.9 points per game (this was pre-three-point era and back when players didn’t get star calls or take 3-5 steps on revery drive) in the series, making him still the only man to win the award for a runner-up team.

A happy Celtic team ran off The Forum floor into the locker room. A jubilant Auerbach kept asking what the Lakers were going to do with all the balloons they had wrapped up in the Forum ceiling, ready to be released upon LA winning the long-awaited crown.

Former Boston Celtic great Bill Russell (L) embrac Photo credit should read STUART CAHILL/AFP via Getty Images

“One more time, one more time,” crowed Auerbach as Russell wiped champagne from his face while being interviewed by ABC analyst Jack Twyman. Ironically, Russell would replace former Royals Hall of Fame forward Twyman as lead ABC analyst on NBA games a few years later.

“Jack...I wouldn’t trade these guys for anything,” he told Twyman of his aging roster. Written off, Boston had finished fourth in the East that season, barely making the playoffs at 48-34.

They knocked off the rival 76ers in the first round, then held off the rising Knicks in the East Finals in six, winning the clincher by a point. After retiring, Russell predicted the Knicks would win the title in 1970, which they did.

Boston then took down the favored Lakers, rallying from deficits of 0-2 and 2-3, to win the most unlikely of his 11 crowns. There was nothing left to do, no mountains left to climb, no opponents to conquer. After the last title was won, Russell went off on a speaking tour around the nation, often on college campuses. When asked by a college reporter at Wisconsin about the Wilt fiasco in Game 7, Russell injured his friendship with Chamberlain for years with a frank answer.

“Any injury short of a broken leg or broken back isn’t good enough,” he said bluntly, not realizing his quote would go nationwide. Russell did not deny saying it. Wilt was furious and would not talk to Russell for almost two decades.

In his second memoir entitled “Second Wind”, Russell wrote this about Chamberlain prematurely taking himself out of Game 7: “Wilt’s leaving was like a misspelled word at the end of a cherished book. My ANGER at him that night caused great friction between us.”

With UCLA standout Kareem Abdul-Jabbar entering the NBA the next season as a rookie, Russell had retired. Would a weary Russell have come back in 1970 had they lost to the Lakers in 1969? Very possibly, but the team was in decline.

Thus Kareem and Russ never faced each other on the court. A few years later, a writer asked the proud Russell how he would have done against Kareem. “Young man, you have the question backwards,” intoned Russell.

How can one evaluate Russell’s game? In more modern terms, the players who most resembled his game were Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace, although both were far lesser players. An inch and a half shorter than Russ at 6-8, Rodman possessed similar athleticism - great speed and leaping ability like Russell, who was a world-ranked high jumper at one time. Both were late bloomers who specialized in defense for a sport defined previously by offensive artistry. Their uniqueness was a big part of their value. Had the league been over-populated by great defenders and rebounders, their unusual skill sets would not have been as valuable. But they gave their teams what they needed, Russell probably more than any player in NBA history.

Russ and the aptly nicknamed Dennis the Menace affected the game with their defense and rebounding. Rodman disdained shooting even more than Bill. For his career, Russell scored 15.5 ppg compared to just 7.3 ppg by the Worm, who shot just 58.4% from the foul line in his career. He was a good passer like Russell, but scored much less. Rodman won seven rebound titles, Russell four on his way to the second-most caroms (21,620) in NBA history behind only Chamberlain. Rodman won five rings (two with Detroit, three in Chicago), six less than Russell.

But Rodman’s act also came with a lot of baggage that Russell lacked. Dennis was clever, an agitator. As he aged, he morphed into an even dirtier player than in his Detroit Bad Boy days. He was 26 as a rookie in 1987, so he was well into his mid-30’s by the time of the celebrated Bulls second three-peat with him in tow. Stronger but slower, he reduced himself to being a diva WWE figure while still rebounding at a high rate, and defending well.

Russell never lowered himself to attention-getting frivolity like Rodman and incidents like his wedding dress/book-signing fiasco, frequent suspensions and fights, tattoos, bleached blonde hair and gambling, among other things. Russell had gravitas, more substance, and didn’t resort to such P.T. Barnum antics.

Russell was controversial for his time. He wore a goatee and a black cape coat around Boston, a statement at the time. But mostly he was out front due to his fiercely proud stance on civil rights and race relations. He became the first black head coach of a major American pro sports team in 1966 when he replaced Red, serivng as player-coach for three years and winning two titles.

Wallace won one title as the hustling defender/rebounder on the 2004 Pistons, outplaying Shaq in those Finals, much like Russell might have vs. O’Neal’s more modern analogue in Wilt. But Wallace’s skills were much weaker on offense than Russell, and his time at the top was short.

Russell changed the game with his shot-blocking, almost starting it as an art form. Centers were more offensive-minded or passers before his arrival and his original vision of the game.He rarely swatted shots out of bounds. He flicked most of his blocks to teammates, starting the devastating Celtic fast break. His great shot-blocking also allowed his teammates to play their opponents even tighter on the perimeter and gamble for steals. They knew that if they got beat, as Heinsohn said, “Russ had our backs.”

After blocking so many shots, Russell intimidated opponents into missing just by his presence, his aura, his reputation. Often he would go hard for blocks early in a game, planting that seed in the opposing minds that he would be there. Players would rush and miss easy shots looking for Russell, who may or may not have been lurking.

He was a master of basketball psychology. The astute Heinsohn (who won eight titles as a player and two more as Celtic head coach following Russell) called him the meanest, most ruthless competitor ever, psychologically.

I recently finished reading Russell’s 2009 book “Red and Me,” a memoir about their unusual and deep friendship. He recalls a late 1960’s game where sweet-shooting Knick Rhodes Scholar forward Bill Bradley was scoring at will against Celtic defensive ace, Satch Sanders.

As the players lined up for a free throw late in the third quarter, Russell glowered at his buddy Satch and said, “can you guard this mother$%#@%?” A motivated Sanders said yes.

Shocked, Bradley went cold and missed almost every shot he took thereafter that game. Years later when Bradley was running for president he was at a function with Russell. He asked him what that outburst all about, 30 years later.

Russell explained that it was all psychological warfare. “Welcome to Basketball Psychology 101 with Doctor Russell,” he told Bradley, emitting his signature loud cackle as Bradley also laughed at the remembrance.

Russell could be a thin-skinned pain. Havlicek recalled years later that when he got to Boston, their locker room was terrible (his “locker” stall as a rookie consisted of nails on a wall). The Celtics were second-class tenants of the ancient Boston Garden, run by the Bruins. As such, they had awful facilities. Hondo said that there was only enough hot water for one shower after games and practice, and Russell always took that first shower and all the hot water along with it.

In mid-career, worn out by playing so many minutes and so hard in the overly long NBA season, Russell asked Auerbach if he could rest instead of take part in all of his grueling practices. So, Red let Russell read the newspaper in the stands sometimes while the other players raced up and down the court. On some teams, this would have been untenable.

“There are two sets of rules on this team, one for Russell and one for the rest of you,” Red explained, knowing Russell had to marshal his energy for the games. Had they not won titles all the time and Russell maximized his teammates with his defense and team play, his practice absences would have been a problem.

Russell had off-the-chart intangibles. He was very smart, highly competitive, driven (he threw up before almost every game) and was a great athlete who scouted opponents in his mind with “movies” he took of their playing style and tendencies in his head. He had unsurpassed timing. He was a very underrated passer and a fine outlet passer.

The Celtics were not only a great team in his tenure, they were an instructive social experiment for the turbulent 1960’s. Coached by a bombastic Jewish man from a long line of rabbis in Belarus, they featured an racially-mixed, harmonious roster brought together for a common goal.

This equanimous collection of disparate individuals from all over the country (blacks from the deep south and far west, whites from midwestern coal-mining country and the northeast) showed America and the world that blacks and whites could work together and in this case, win multiple championships and forge lifelong friendships - as well as mutual respect and understanding.

Russell became the first black head coach in pro American sports as Red’s successor in 1966. Boston was the first NBA team to start five blacks in the mid-1960s, even though super sixth man Havlicek was probably their best all-around player. Players sacrificed statistics for titles. Their contracts were based on championships won, not points scored.

As an analyst post-playing career, Russell grumbled on TV once that the referees at that time made more money than he did as a player. He opened a rubber plant in Liberia, which failed miserably and became a money pit. He enjoyed middling success as a coach and general manager of Seattle in the 1970’s. Russell’s later stint as coach and GM in the late 1980’s for the Kings was very unsuccessful. But Russell did draft unknown defensive ace Dennis Johnson in 1976 - a future stalwart on the 1984 and 1986 Celtic title teams - and he laid the foundation for the SuperSonic team that won the 1979 NBA title.

After he retired, Russell famously said he wasn’t sure if he wanted to go to heaven after playing 13 years for the Celtics, saying “anything else might be a step down.”

Now, he gets his chance to find out.

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