8.18.2009

Bill Russell Night 1999 (Part 2)

Bill Sharman, the man who greeted Bill Russell at Logan Airport when he came to Boston as a rookie in 1956, was there. Arnie Risen, who lost his starting center job to Russell but gained a championship ring, was there, too.

So were Tommy Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, Frank Ramsey, and Jim Loscutoff -- all members of the 1956-57 Celtics who were reunited last night with Russell and shared some memories of the first of 16 NBA championships brought to Boston.

"He was a lion. The greatest competitor I was ever around," said Heinsohn, also a rookie that season. "He refused to lose."

Russell made his debut on national television at Boston Garden against the St. Louis Hawks in December 1956, and, Cousy recalled from the podium with his former mates of 43 years ago, "We didn't quite know what we were going to get. But when I walked off the floor, I remember saying to myself, `We've got something special here.' "

Cousy, who presented Russell with a watch on behalf of the '57 team, kidded Russell that he could have used it as a player because of his lateness for practice.

"He won me a championship ring," said Risen, who starred for the Rochester Royals before coming to Boston for three seasons at the end of his career. "I earned my other ring with Rochester, but Russell really put the second one on my finger.

"I knew right from his first practice that he was going to be special. We ran through the plays with him and he showed he could jump over the moon and do it quickly," said Risen.

"The first couple of scrimmages, why, I was eating every other shot that I threw up there and that hadn't happened to me very much in my career."

Russell and that '57 team were all about winning and not about individual stats. "In those days, everybody tried to help everybody out," said Risen. "We genuinely liked each other. And Red (Auerbach) liked to have the older guys like myself help the younger players. We didn't have scouting reports or film in those days, so I would tell him about some of the other centers and he learned pretty quickly, and he's been gracious in crediting me for that."

Loscutoff recalled playing for an Army team against Russell, who was a freshman at the University of San Francisco at the time, and having a couple of basketballs thrown back in his face.

"When Bill came to the NBA, he immediately broke my Celtics rebounding record, and I can remember telling Red, one thing about Russell is that we'd always get the edge on a tipoff, that we'd get a quick two points to start."

Loscutoff remembered Russell as a player who always elevated his game in clutch situations.

"He could shoot, but he wasn't a great shooter," said the man nicknamed Jungle Jim. "On free throws he was a lousy shooter. But funny thing. In a tough situation, when we needed a free throw or two free throws, the damn guy would always make them. He had the guts of a steer. Unbelievable."

Ramsey, who was Auerbach's and the Celtics' first sixth man, was stationed at Fort Knox in his native Kentucky when Russell made his Celtics debut. The "Kentucky Colonel," as he was dubbed by Johnny Most, watched Russell's debut on television.

"And just from watching the screen, I could see his timing was incredible. You knew he was going to be great."

Ramsey rejoined the Celtics later that season and in Russell, he found a teammate with "a good sense of humor and that piercing laugh. But he was also a competitor. He wanted to win and he would do anything to reach that goal."

But not necessarily in practice, laughed Ramsey. "Well, we knew he had to play 47 or 48 minutes a game, so in practice, we tried to get Russ to referee."

Sharman, meanwhile, said that when he saw Russell prior to last night's affair, a lot of memories and emotion marked their reunion.

"I told him, `Bill, I spent a lot of years playing and coaching and I owe most of it to you.' He's the best there's ever been."

Russell, said Sharman, gave the Celtics the rebounding and defense they had sorely lacked in the first few years of the Auerbach era.

"He wasn't a great scorer or a great shooter, and that's maybe why the Hawks gave up their rights to him to the Celtics," said Sharman in reference to the trade that brought Russell to Boston. "But he went on, in my opinion, to become the greatest player in the history of the game.

"He's the one player I would pick to be at my side in the seventh game of the NBA championship finals."

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