Grampa Celtic Talks #6

Explaining Bill Russell to someone who never saw him play is impossible, because there is no contemporary frame of reference. Not physically. Not emotionally. Not intellectually.

Twenty-six years after his last contest (a victorious seventh game -- of course), Bill Russell remains the most important person who has played this game, or, quite likely, any game.

"He is the first person who ever dominated his (team) sport without being the offensive guy," contends Bill Walton, who himself knew one or two things about playing championship basketball. "He was also instrumental in forcing everyone to treat athletes with individual dignity."

Measured strictly in wins and losses, Bill Russell has no peer in American athletic history. Beginning with his junior year at the University of San Francisco, the essential truth about basketball was that if Bill Russell was on your side, you would most likely win the game.

"His accomplishments are greater than anyone in the history of any sport," points out Walton, one of the many Celtic greats on hand for last night's Garden festivities. "In 15 years of national championships, he won 13 times. That's what you play for. If someone wins one championship today, he immediately becomes the greatest guy ever to play. Where does that leave Bill Russell?"

It pretty much leaves him where he was on May 5, 1969, when, at age 36, he played all 48 minutes and hauled in 21 rebounds to lead the Celtics to championship No. 11 in the Fabulous Forum. No one has come close to equaling his stature as a winner, and it is a reasonable assumption no one ever will.

Bill Russell was the first truly modern player. He took a landlocked horizontal game and made it vertical and diagonal at the same time. He took a game that had been universally perceived in one light and introduced an entire new mode of thinking. And playing.

And it took one game.

He made his NBA and Boston Garden debut on the afternoon of Saturday, Dec. 22, 1956, against the St. Louis Hawks. Red Auerbach let him play 21 minutes, during which time he scored 6 points, pulled down 16 rebounds, blocked 3 shots on the great Bob Pettit and created tremors that were felt around the NBA.

Every person present in the building who had any feel for the game of basketball knew that the sport would never be the same again. It was like being in attendance at the Manhattan Project.

The next day -- the next day -- this newspaper said it all with one headline.


The answer was yes, and it took one game.

In his fourth game, he grabbed 34 rebounds to break the existing NBA standard by five. No one had ever seen such a package of size, quickness, agility, competitiveness and ingenuity. No one ever has.

Prior to Bill Russell, the men basketball experts considered to be truly great had one thing in common. They provided offense. Rebound specialists or defensive stoppers were desirable curiosities, but no one whose raison d'etre was scoring points or generating assists was ever viewed as an elite player. Bill Russell was a force of an entirely different nature.

Players and fans today have all seen wonderful defensive players and rebounders, and they undoubtedly think they've seen the Last Words on the subject. Unless they saw Bill Russell, however, they never saw The Best.

"Bill Russell was the quintessential defensive player," recalls the great Walt Frazier, who knew what it was like to snack on some leather courtesy of No. 6. "He could intimidate you, figuratively and literally, with his very presence. The main thing about Bill Russell was, if you didn't see him, look out!"

Beyond the sheer physical skill was the most creative thought process basketball had yet seen. "What Bill Russell did was allow everyone else to be themselves," Walton explains. "He and Magic Johnson are the two players in the history of basketball who most played for others. They made everyone else stars. They never felt an obligation to be the star themselves, unless it was absolutely necessary."

Russell had a complete understanding of team dynamics, and he was completely willing to put his understanding into practice. Each sport is full of men who pay lip service to team values. Bill Russell proved his sincerity in this regard every night of his career.

"We are a bunch of men that work togther and we judge each other solely on character," said Russell in these pages after the 1969 LA seventh game had produced the championship for the oldest and proudest group ever to walk off with an NBA title. "Reputation has nothing to do with it. You can see the things we've achieved as a group and it's definitely thrilling . . . We play together, live together, take care of each other, worry about each other, and I would feel the same way about these guys even if we lost."

Not that Bill Russell knew very much about losing. "He won just about every big game he ever played in," declares Walton. "The team didn't win in '58 because he had a broken foot. Philadelphia won in '67, and then people said it was the best team ever to play. Well, the Celtics wrapped 11 championships around that."

The Celtics won their first championship in 1957. They won their 11th in 1969. There was but one constant during those 13 seasons. Every other player changed. The coach changed. The ownership changed -- constantly. There was but one link between the first title and the 11th, and that link was Bill Russell.

The Celtics trotted out 22 former greats in last night's memorable halftime ceremony. There were Hall of Famers, MVPs and championship players by the truckload, as befits the history of basketball's most storied franchise.

The last man introduced was the greatest player in the history of American team sport. That man was Bill Russell.

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