NOLA. We celebrated Bill Russell’s birthday yesterday (Feb. 12 1934, Monroe, LA.) at the NBA All-Star brunch along with the NBA elite, his family, friends and fans. Some of the players who played against him, like Rick Barry and Bob Petit, recalled what it was like to compete against him. I first saw him play in 1960 at Madison Square Garden and from then until I graduated from high school in 1965 I must have seen him play at least 20 times. Bill’s genius on the court was based on the way he had figured out how to dominate the game from the defensive end of the court. The Celtics were able to force their opponents to take low-percentage shots from the perimeter because Bill would not allow anyone to get into position to shoot a lay-up or short-range jump shot. On the other hand, the Celts worked their offense for high-percentage, medium- and short-range jumpers. This simple game plan was the foundation for the Celtic dynasty, which dominated the game for the entirety of Bill’s career. The Celtics were NBA champs in 11 of Bill’s 13 seasons.
It was something to see! Any and all shooters who tried to score in Bill’s domain—roughly the area 8 to 10 ft. from the hoop—were in for a frustrating evening. It’s a shame that statistics for blocked shots were not recorded when Bill played. But there is a place where you can see him playing in his prime on the internet. Go to “Bill Russell—Block Art” on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWFsL4Y8RVA). It features great clips of Bill terrorizing anyone trying to shoot a lay-up or score in the paint against the Celtics. Also, some of the players who played against the Celtics in that era are interviewed and they give great insights about how Bill played the game.
People often forget that Bill competed for the University of San Francisco track and field team in the NCAA’s Division 1 as a high jumper. That type of agility and explosive leaping ability served him well for the whole of his career. Bill was able to use his success as an athlete as a political tool. His competence and discipline were attributes that inspired Black Americans at a time when Blacks were not seen as capable in those areas. His success helped to disprove some of the negative stereotypes about Blacks that were commonly thought to be true during the Jim Crow era. Some people mistakenly thought that Bill’s quiet, dignified demeanor was somehow a mask for militancy. But Bill just kept on winning.
By watching Bill and taking notes, I was able to use his tactics as a template for my defensive efforts. I would not have retired as the all-time leader in blocked shots if I had not had the opportunity to watch Bill play when I was in high school. You can get some insight into Bill’s rebounding skills by checking out the record books for his yearly averages in that category. I challenge anyone who is talking about their “Mt. Rushmore” lists to omit Bill after they check out the numbers.
As someone who learned so much from Bill both on and off the court I just want to say “Thanks” for the inspiration you gave as an athlete and, more importantly, thanks for setting such a great example as a human being. You are one of a kind, Bill.