This is my response to the recent favorable comparison of Tyson Chandler, the newly acquired NY Knickerbocker, to the great and legendary Bill Russell by Coach Mike D’Antoni,
There was no one like Bill Russell!
For me there are certain sacred aspects in sports regarding both hero worship and generally accepted accounting practices, of which Alan Rosenberg is our resident expert. With regards to Bill Russell, he is the gold standard of both in any sport, no less basketball. Bill Russell’s balance sheet rates the highest by all standards of evaluation.
By 1955, the Celtics who had led the league in scoring the three previous seasons understood they needed a big man in the middle. Bill Reinhardt, Red’s old coach from George Washington advised him to keep his eye on San Francisco’s big center Bill Russell. Two great coaches advised Red, Phil Woolpert, of the Dons and Pete Newell of California, along with Fred Scolari and Don Barksdale, who were on the Celtics, that Russell was the genuine article. Therefore Red realized that he had to plan carefully if he wanted to acquire the rights to Russell. Eventually Red learned that his old friend and now nemesis Ben Kerner intended to draft Russell with his second round choice. Cincinnati, who had the first choice, felt they could not afford Russell, who would also be entertaining bids from the Harlem Globetrotters. The Royals already had great rebounding strength from their rookie sensation, the ill-fated Maurice Stokes and were going to draft All-American Sihugo Green. Therefore Red had to make a deal with Kerner. His star center Ed Macauley was from St. Louis and his child had taken ill with spinal meningitis and the young boy was transferred to specialists near his home in St. Louis. Macauley had also graduated and starred at the University of St. Louis and would be anxious to play at home and be near his son. Kerner also demanded that Cliff Hagan be thrown in on the deal. Hagan, who with Frank Ramsey, came from the University of Kentucky, had been drafted a few years earlier, but because they could play another season in college and then had service obligations weren’t available until 1956. Ramsey had played a little for the Celtics when he was discharged early and Hagan was a rookie. Ramsey would later play for the Celtics and become famous as the first “Sixth” man and Hagan went on to star with the Hawks along with Bob Pettit. The Celtics had a “territorial” draft pick and used it to acquire Tommy Heinsohn, another All-American from Holy Cross. When Russell returned in December from Australia with the Olympic Gold medal, and joined the Celtics in mid-season, the “Dynasty” was finally pieced together. The Celtics went on to win eleven of the next thirteen NBA titles. They probably would have won in 1958 but Russell sprained his ankle and the Hawks, led by Petit and Hagan, won the two last games 102-100 and 110-109. In that final game, the great Bob Pettit scored 50 points. Personally I doubt that would have happened if Russell had been healthy. But it did. After that setback, the Celtics went on to win 8 straight titles. It could have easily had been 10!
One great and lasting college basketball memory occurred when I came to the new Garden, on a cool March 19, 1966 afternoon, with Mount Vernon friend and NYU junior Alan Rosenberg. A good NYU (15-9) team, led by former White Plains star guard Mal Graham, met lily-white Brigham Young (17-5) in the National Invitation Tournament finals. NYU had beaten DePaul, Wichita and Villanova, while Brigham Young had defeated Temple and Army. Graham, a high school All-American, who had torched Mount Vernon High School, in our senior year (1962-3) for 42 points in two separate games, led the Violets with an outstanding average of around 25 points per game. The next year he would average 29 points per game and be second in the nation in scoring. The other star on NYU was the 6’4” Bruce Kaplan from James Madison High School in Brooklyn. When we arrived Alan took me into the locker room where I met Graham and Kaplan. It was my first and last time that I was in the locker room of the Garden and unfortunately it was a blowout for the Mormons from Utah, whose quick guards ran the Violets ragged and won going away, 97-84. Interestingly, the coach of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was the famous Bobby Knight, who was an Ohio State teammate of two of the current Celtics, John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried. When I was in college I got to meet Siegfried at a number of Boston University parties. Knight always felt he was a better ballplayer than Siegfried. They were both selected in the 1962 NBA draft and both wound up sitting at the end of the bench of their respective teams. Siegfried was signed for $1000 bonus and Knight for $500. When it came time for cuts to be made by their respective teams, Knight was cut because his team had only invested $500 in him, wherein Siegfried, who was on the Cincinnati Royals was kept around because $1000 was a larger investment. Siegfried was eventually cut and Red Auerbach, and the Celtics, liked his style of play. He remained there for years, and contributed mightily as a scrappy ballplayer who collected 6 championship rings and averaged over 13 points per game for a number of seasons. After a 9-year career, in which he averaged over 10 points per game, he retired. Knight felt he should have been drafted higher than Siegfried and therefore gotten a bigger bonus. He blamed his low draft position to a poor performance in Madison Square Garden. His father had died right before the tournament and the scouts, who were all there, saw an underachieving Bobby Knight.
Part II Bill Russell
Russell was the greatest of all players. He was like a giant bird of prey. His timing was impeccable and brought an incredible level and style of defense to the sport that had never existed before. Before Russell and the 24-second clock, which forced a team to take a shot within a time parameter, basketball was slow, defensive, plodding and very physical. Games could be slowed down to a crawl. With the advent of the 24-second rule the game opened up and scoring increased immediately. The “fast-break,” which was instituted by guards like the pre-war stars Hank Luisetti and Bob Davies, came into its own with Cousy, who made it into an art form. When Russell came into the fray he became the engine of that system. Russell’s ability to block shots, to intimidate the opposition and to control the ball after it was blocked was unique. Almost no one else could do what he did, and even today 50 years later, no one has really mastered that skill at the level Russell had developed right from the start. Others who followed, batted the ball away, as did Chamberlain. But Russell, not only grabbed rebounds, both defensive, but the all important offensive ones, but he set up the fast break with his remarkable outlet passes from controlling the blocked shots of his opponents. That was and still remains unique. Others like Jerry Lucas, Bill Walton and Wes Unseld were strong and mobile and could move the ball and shoot. But they did not have Russell’s uncanny timing, and they could not shut down the middle off to the opposition like Russell could. I went to the Boston Garden often and the games that I saw that pitted Russell against Wilt Chamberlain were monumental. The “Wilt” was unlike any other athletic specimen. No one could stop him, but at least Russell could keep him contained. The fact that Chamberlain averaged 50.4 point per game throughout one season (1961-2) probably remains the most remarkable achievement in sport’s history. Therefore without Russell in his way, Chamberlain would have bulldozed the whole league and owned all of the championship banners that were available. The Russell-Chamberlain rivalry was probably the greatest confrontation in the history of sport. It far outweighed; Borg-McEnroe, Jimmy Brown-Sam Huff, Joe DiMaggio-Bob Feller, Helen Wills-Helen Jacob, Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johanson, Ali-Frazier, Gordie Howe-Rocket Richard, Bird-Magic, or even War Admiral and Seabiscuit. In this greatest of all battles between these titans of the game, Russell and Chamberlain matched up 142 times, not counting All-Star or exhibition games. Wilt; who outweighed Big Bill by 50 pounds, and was at least 5 inches taller even grabbed an amazing 55 rebounds against him in 1960. But in these classic struggles Russell’s Celtic teams won 86 games or 60.6% of the time. In those 142 games, Chamberlain averaged 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds per game, wherein Russ averaged 14.5 points and 23.7 rebounds per game. In their respective careers, including both regular season and playoffs Russell averaged 15.24 points per game and 22.8 rebounds, while The Wilt averaged 29.07 points per game and 23.10 rebounds per game. Statistically there is no “smoking gun” between them. Russell and Auerbach always felt that Chamberlain would get his points, so it was more critical to limit his teammate’s contributions and therefore win the game. Russell could shoot when he wanted to and averaged between 16 and 18 points per game through his middle years with the Celts. The truth is that Russell didn’t have to shoot and was much happier and productive setting up his teammates.
So any comparison to Russell must be carefully weighed and judiciously framed within the context of a player’s career and accomplishments. Russell played in a unique era when after league contraction, the best players in the world were vying for very few starting spots. The NBA, through most of Russell’s career, had 8 to 12 teams and making the starting five was incredibly difficult. Every team had great players and because basketball rules traditionally favored offense in the post 24 second clock era, defense became much more critical. The great success of the Celtics, in the heart of the Cousy-Russell era, was that not only could they shoot and run with the best of the best, but their defense, led by Big Bill Russell and ably assisted by other All-Pro defensive greats like KC Jones and Tom “Satch” Sanders was unmatched. Russell will always be regarded as the greatest winner of “All-Time: in any sport, but the innovator who changed his sport and made it his own.