As a defender and thinker, the late Celtics great was a dominant force to watch in real time.
Bill Russell retired 53 years ago. Thus, most of you reading this have only seen Russell play on grainy film clips, probably in black-and-white, that don’t come close to capturing his brilliance. But since I’m fortunate (and old enough) to have seen basketball’s greatest leader and winner play many times in person, let me share some impressions from that experience.
When watching Russell, it quickly became clear that he was not just the greatest defender ever, but the best help defender of all time. He excelled at blocking shooters who had beaten their man. Russell protected the paint so well that it was a mystery why anyone attempted to penetrate against the Boston defense.
It’s a shame blocks weren’t tracked until after Russell retired. The same goes for awarding All-Defense and Defensive Player of the Year. Russ would have owned those categories. He was everywhere on the boards and the defensive end at all times. Unlike most NBA players, if he was going to take a rest for a play or two, he’d do it on offense, not defense.
I was able to watch the last four seasons of Russell’s career. I had become a Celtics fan in 1965, after my best friend, Joe LoSchiavo, decided he was going to root for the Green. This was significant because we A) were new to the NBA, and B) grew up in Brooklyn, NY, where everyone else was a Knicks fan. In hindsight, you could say that we chose wisely.
The first game I can remember going to was in January 1967 at New York’s old Madison Square Garden. It had been a frigid Saturday, which Joe and I spent distributing flyers for a car service operated by a friend of his family, if I remember correctly. We were paid a few bucks each, so we decided to hop on the subway, spend our earnings, and get a live look at our guys. With our high school ID cards, we were able to sit in the end balcony with tickets that cost $1 each. That’s right: one dollar.
The Knicks were a sub-.500 team and Boston was eight-time defending champs, but on that night, New York led by 12 points at the half, nine after three quarters, and 14 with about eight minutes left. That’s when Russell and the Celtics turned up their defense to climb back in.
I distinctly recall a play where the Knicks disrupted a Celtics fast break and broke out with their own two-on-one opportunity. The “one” was Russell, who moved to stop the ball on the right wing as he faced the attack. Russ waited just long enough to lure the ballhandler toward the paint, then foot-faked to prompt a pass to the opposite wing. As the cutter shot the layup, Russell spun toward him, rejected the ball with his left hand, and grabbed the rebound to trigger another Boston break.
Those two Knicks never had a chance, and neither did their team. Russell played all 48 minutes, finished with 21 points, 25 rebounds and 4 assists, and the Celtics completed their comeback to win, 114-112.
Another memorable moment was in February 1969, vs. the Knicks at Boston Garden. By then, I was going to college in Boston, and was in the balcony when Russell was injured on a last-second play. The Celts were down one point and Russell (in his third season as player-coach) called for himself to receive a lob pass off the inbounds.
The execution was poor, and not only did Boston fail to score, but Russell fell hard and had to be helped off the floor after the buzzer. He missed a week as the Celtics lost all three games without him. But don’t overlook the fact that, ten days short of his 35th birthday, again playing all 48 minutes, Russell didn’t hesitate to put the pressure on himself, because that was his guiding principle: always do whatever is best for the team.
The last time I saw Russell in person was Game 6 of the 1969 Finals at Boston. The Lakers were up 3-2 and ready to drink champagne in the house of their nemesis, but the Celtics still had hope. And Russell.
That day, Russ again played all 48, scored just 9, but had 19 rebounds and 2 assists while holding Wilt Chamberlain to 8/18/4. Two nights later, the C’s won Game 7 in LA.
Russell famously was 10-0 in NBA Game 7s and 21-0 in his entire amateur and pro career in win-or-go-home games. Simply put, when you had Bill Russell, you truly never thought you might lose.
Some fans and media today think Russell won so much because he had a physical advantage over opponents. He was a supreme athlete playing against “plumbers,” the argument goes. The first part of that is true – he was more athletic than most of his peers.
But Russ had two skills that aren’t discussed as much: his intellect and his will to win. Russell excelled at putting doubt into opponents’ minds. Here’s his famous quote:
“The idea is not to block every shot. The idea is to make your opponent believe that you might block every shot.”
Russell notably dominated the psychological aspects of his rivalry with Wilt. If their matchups had simply been based on physical ability, the bigger Wilt would’ve probably prevailed. But they weren’t, and Russell’s Celtics won seven of eight playoff series versus Wilt’s various teams (Warriors, Sixers, Lakers). Maybe Russell had better teammates, maybe not. Or maybe they were better teammates because Russell helped make them so.
Russ once acknowledged that, if Boston had a game under control, he would let up on defense and give Wilt his points in garbage time. Russell didn’t care how many Wilt scored as long as Boston won; meanwhile, Chamberlain was focused on individual achievements.
1962 illustrated that. Wilt led the league with ridiculous numbers (50 points and 26 rebounds per game), and was first-team All-NBA, but Russell won MVP as the Celtics went 60-20. Boston then beat Philadelphia in the playoffs. Key stat: Russell held Wilt to 22 points in Boston’s two-point Game 7 victory.
In 1965, Wilt signed a contract for $100,000, a huge salary at the time. Russell then negotiated a $100,001 deal.
In the last two years of Russell’s career, his will overcame Chamberlain’s in very public fashion. In 1968, Game 7 of the Eastern Finals at Philadelphia, Wilt took only two shots in the second half and Boston won by four points. Russell iced the game with a free throw, thus completing a Celtics comeback from down 1-3 in the series.
Then in the 1969 Finals, Game 7 in Los Angeles, the Lakers staged a late rally while Chamberlain was on the bench with a minor injury. Wilt wanted to get back onto the floor and argued unsuccessfully with his coach, who preferred to let the rally play out. The Celtics hung on for a two-point win and Banner 11, as Russell went to 7-0 vs. the Lakers in the Finals.
Imagine the mental toughness it took to be the head coach (without even one assistant) while also playing 48 minutes in Game 7, on the road, in those two ultra-high-stakes series, against Wilt Chamberlain. (Even better, Russell was on the court for every single minute of the Lakers series — he never subbed out.)
Bill Russell did all that. In his 13 seasons, he won 27 of 29 playoff series and 11 rings. As a fan watching, I always expected him to win, and he almost always did. His record will never be matched.
The last word goes to Russell’s teammates. Enjoy them describing how he outthought the opposition as you watch him block shots like no one else.