Russell Trades Barbs with Walton while Hot Tubbing


December 22, 2002

With NBA action spread across multi-channels, ABC sought a unique way to spread word that its 14-game package will be launched on Christmas. It opens with a doubleheader, the Celtics-Nets test of last spring's Eastern finalists (Ch..5, 6 p.m.) and the Kings-Lakers. It represents ABC's first NBA involvement in 30 years.

     What could be better than Bill Russell, sitting in a hot tub, trading good-natured barbs with fellow ex-Celtic Bill  Walton and declaring in a network-arranged conference call with critics how NBA telecasts have changed since he was aboard those 30 years ago versions with Keith Jackson.

     Russell won't be on ABC's broadcast team, unlike Walton or the Brent Musburger-Sean Elliott-Michelle Tafoya trio that will handle C's-Nets. That's unless he's a late entry on a few broadcasts. But he demonstrated during the call how he still speaks out and brings smiles with that infectious cackle.

     When asked his opinion of modern telecasts, the NBA's best-ever shot-blocker took one of his own.

     "I always feel announcers talk down to fans, and they shouldn't," he said. But Russell also noted production quality is up dramatically in the computer age.

     "In the old days, the cameras went to the ball," Russell said. "Now you see guys picking their nose up in the third row."

     Who's the best announcer? Russell did not mention Al Michaels or NBA callers Musburger and Brad Nessler, but he did have ABC in mind. "I still say Keith Jackson is the best sportscaster I've listened to. Keith and I started using replays. Roone Arledge gave us enormous technical support. My microphone was especially turned up because my normal voice was too low to be picked up."

     Turn back 30 years and ABC was doing four-camera NBA productions. The Christmas night games will have 21, and production veep Bob Toms said the courtside tandems will find studio duo Mike Tirico and Tom Tolbert jumping in with spontaneous remarks.

     That's a major change from the past.

     "But I always had a good time," Russell said with that cackle. "(Director) Chet Forte was completely nuts. Jack-son was the ultimate professional and we never stepped on each other's toes. But my dear friend Earl Monroe did not play all-league defense. Keith said it and I answered, 'You can't say that. Every guard he plays gets hot. His luck is just bad.' "

     Another cackle.

     Russell had a good time exchanging jabs with Walton, who's a real gusher when it comes to the NBA and new stars like Yao Ming. Walton declared Russell, as a coach, once sent John Hummer into a game "to sucker-punch me."

     Russell responded that the only time he issued such an order was for Sam Jones to hit Wilt Chamberlain, that he never said that to Hummer, but just "ring his bell."

     Another cackle.

     When the subject turned to the faltering three-year champion Lakers, Walton said "other teams don't seem in awe and terrified" of Shaquille O'Neal anymore.

     At first, Russell recalled Red Auerbach getting angry with him one year despite a 12-game lead.

     "Red said, 'You're coasting.' " But then Russell said: "I think the toe injury had more of an impact on Shaq psy-chologically than people realize."

     Yes, there was mutual admiration. Walton said, "When I was a boy, I planned my life around Sunday basketball (on TV) and Bill Russell." And No. 6, calling Big Red "a multi-media star," said of his midweek ABC debut, "in show business, they say go break a leg."

     Walton shot back, "I've done that too many times," and got a cackle.

     Finally, a New York Times critic inquired about the sound of swirling water and Russell admitted he was in a hot tub.

     "Are you alone?" Walton asked.

     "Temporarily, I hope," was the reply, and with a cackle.

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