Bill Russell wanted things kept a bit light on his night and Larry Bird, dropping by for a quick break from Indiana Pacers playoff basketball, was happy to oblige.
"I have a question," Bird said shortly after being brought on stage with Bill Walton, Dave Cowens, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a legends-of-basketball session at last night's tribute to Russell. "What's Bill Walton doing up here?"
Russell, Walton, and the FleetCenter crowd loved it.
Bird was also more than willing to step up and defend Russell, Celtic pride, and tradition in the face of any attack, real or imagined.
Michael Jordan had appeared via video message shortly before Bird had his turn and after duly noting Russell's feat of 11 championships in 13 seasons as amazing added a postscript. The titles were collected, Jordan noted, while there were eight teams in the league.
MJ doing a little long-distance busting on Big Bill? Perhaps.
But the crowd hooted. And Bird dropped down to cover Russell and pointed out that he would rather play the teams in the league these days than the teams in those days.
And NBA commissioner David Stern took his own shot at Jordan a little later.
"There were only eight teams, so all the great players were concentrated on eight teams, Michael," Stern admonished.
Bird did mention that Russell didn't make things any easier for the Celtics who came after him.
"Bill set the standards so high that if you came to Boston and put the Celtics uniform on and did not win a championship, you had no game," Bird said to more laughs.
And soon, Bird was back in his limo and headed back to the NBA playoffs, complete with a motorcycle police escort.
A lasting impression
Julius Erving, dressed nattily for Russell's big night, bent his knees just a bit, put his left hand up, and began to imitate a Russell foul shot.
"I mean, you'd watch him shoot free throws -- he was kind of awkward," Erving said. "And the way he passed. He couldn't dribble the ball. You look at a whole lot of things with basketball skills, basketball talent. Where is it? But at the end of the game they've got 120 points and the other guys have 106.
"It's his focus, his tenacity. Never when I saw him play did I look at him as the most talented player on the court. But he would be the best player because of what he could bring to the table and how he could make everyone better and how he was in the clutch and how he was always a step ahead."
It was 1970 and Erving had just finished his sophomore All-America season at the University of Massachusetts and Russell had wrapped up his professional playing career and drove out to Amherst as part of a distinguished visitors program.
Erving introduced him, Russell spoke, then the two adjourned to a coffee shop.
"We spent three hours chewing the fat and rehashing things that were important to him and that he wanted to share and then he got back in his car and drove back to Boston," Erving said. "For me, it was one of the single most important days of my life."
Erving still remembers Russell's first question of him.
"He asked me what was the most important building on campus," Erving said. "Like any athlete, I said `the gym.' He said, `I don't think so.' I said, `Then what's the answer to that, Mr. Russell?' He said the library. You can find anything you want to know about the world in the library and there should be things you want to know about. You seem like a bright enough young man, there should be things you want to learn about. The library is the most important building, remember that."
A study in success
Linda Alioto-Robinson, executive director of the Mass. Mentoring Partnership, had mixed feelings about taking Russell to Chelsea High School yesterday morning.
She was not sure how the students would react to their guest. Would they even know who he was? Would they realize the huge role he played with the Celtics?
Maybe they realized, maybe they didn't. Didn't matter.
"I couldn't believe it," Robinson said. "The kids were hanging on every word."
Russell smiled. He laughed. He talked of the value of education. Talked some more.
And by the end of the session they were hanging onto the big guy.
"They were all giving him hugs," Robinson said.
It was Russell's association with the National Mentoring Partnership program, of which Mass. Mentoring is a chapter, that led to last night's event. Russell has been involved with the program for a few years and wanted to do something to financially help the association that hooks youngsters up with mentors.
The tribute was born.
The goal was to raise a million dollars and Robinson said last night that while final figures were not in, the event was "pretty close" to its target.
Tommy Heinsohn met Russell up close -- too up close -- and personal before they teamed as rookies with the Celtics for the 1956-57 season.
The previous year Heinsohn's Holy Cross team and Russell's University of San Francisco squad had hooked up in the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden.
The Dons were coming off one national title and headed toward another.
"They had quite a team," Heinsohn recalled. "We were up by 11 at the half. And then the defense started. He blocked every shot I took."
So Heinsohn knew what to expect when Russell joined the Celtics midway through that first Russell championship season after helping the United States to the Olympic gold medal in Melbourne.
And Russell proceeded to deliver. The Celtics won that title. And 10 more in Russell's 13 seasons.
"He approached the game in a way modern athletes would find very difficult to appreciate," Heinsohn said. "He wasn't about me, me, me. He was about team, team, team."
And Heinsohn put in a plug for the old times.
"Some think old-timers couldn't play in today's game," Heinsohn said. "I just want to let them know that I think every single member of the Boston Celtics of that era could play in the current NBA. And Russell would still be dominant because he was the finest athlete on our team. He would beat the Jones boys in the wind sprints and he would beat them going away, I might add. He had speed and tremendous mobility and he had the fire that very few of the current, modern players seem to have."
Always the villain
Wilt Chamberlain, ever the foil of Russell, also caught some grief from the crowd when he said that Russell made a good move by getting out of the league just before Abdul-Jabbar arrived. "You're not doing very well," said master of ceremonies Bill Cosby to Chamberlain . . . Abdul Jabbar, who grew up in New York City, on Russell and the Celtics: "I learned how to play the game watching him, literally. I would go to Madison Square Garden every time there was a doubleheader and the Celtics were playing. And it was a seminar. I just watched and learned."
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