With the NCAA basketball tourney in high gear and the NBA playoffs nearing, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight the best team player of any sport. With all due respect to my hockey friends, he is not Henri Richard of the famous Montreal Canadiens, who some would argue could lay such claim. The best teammate ever happens to have been quite successful as a college and pro basketball player, so it is apropos to mention him here and now.
His college team won two national championships, his pro team won eleven NBA championships and his Olympic team won the Gold Medal, as well. Who is he? He is not Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Larry Bird, although he is appearing in two commercials during the NCAA tournament with the latter three around the kids pre-school desk and the guy who usually does this funny banter with kids. His name is Bill Russell and he is remembered as the legendary center for the Boston Celtics and University of San Francisco.
Bill’s teams were good for two primary reasons. First and foremost, he was on the team. He had personal achievements winning the Most Valuable Player award five times and was a twelve time all-star. He is in the Hall of Fame and was voted one of the 50 Best NBA Players of all time. Yet, by his own admission, Wilt Chamberlain was a better basketball player. Wilt, though, did not win that many championships or have near the same amount of team success.
Second, his team won because Russell understood the concept of team play better than anyone. You see Russell’s forte was not scoring, although he did do some of that averaging 15 points a game as a pro. His forte was doing those things on the court which involved effort and intellect as much as skill. He was a voracious rebounder averaging an unheard of today 22.5 rebound per game. Rebounding requires calculation of where the shot was taken and where a missed shot might carom or bounce. Most basketball shots taken from one side of the basketball court, when missed, will carom to the other side. Then, it requires a huge amount of effort to get to the best position where the missed shot might go and use your body to block out an opponent, another lost art in the US.
By rebounding well, the opponent gets fewer shots and your team gets more shots. An explanation of basketball success doesn’t get any easier than that. Yet, he also was one of the best shot blockers the game has ever known. Shotblocking is timing as well as skill, but he made it a craft. But, the one thing he did that is rarely done when you watch the tournament games today, is Russell blocked the shot to a teammate. This normally started a fast break which has a higher chance of scoring than a set play. He was known to have said, “If I block it out-of-bounds, it may look more theatrical, but we still don’t have the ball.” When you watch the Final Four and the NBA playoffs, see how many times the blocker just blocks it out-of-bounds.
The third thing he did well in addition to the shot blocking was play good defense. Offense is more fun to play. Defense requires an effort. Offense is what the fans want to see, but defense wins championships. The shot blocking was his signature trait, but he also did other things to make his team defend the goal better. He worked hard to disrupt the other teams’ offense through disrupting passes and shots.
The final thing he did well is his passing. He knew his teammates could shoot better than he did, so he would get them the ball passing out of the post position. Plus, by having his teammates involved, he knew they would pick up their defense. Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said this the other day, “I know I am not supposed to say this, but when a player is scoring and involved in the offense, he usually plays better defense as a result.” Having been around basketball for years, I have never heard a coach utter those words, yet I think Russell knew this intuitively.
Russell actually was a player coach his last three seasons as a Boston Celtics and his team won each year. But, when he kept coaching after he retired, his teams did not win like before. The key reason was Bill Russell was not playing. He brought all of the above to the court – intellect, effort, skill and energy. But he brought one other thing. His desire to win. Before almost every big game, Russell could be heard in the locker restroom throwing up. His teammates knew that if Russell was throwing up because he was nervous, they were going to win. And, they did.
One final thought about Bill Russell, which I also admire him for, is his activism. He was very intelligent and he knew that African-Americans were continuing to be maltreated in the 1960s. He joined together with Jim Brown, the superb NFL football star, and others to make a statement because their athletic prowess and notoriety gave them a platform to be heard. They did what people like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan have not done because of fear of lost endorsements. They stood up for African-Americans who were being disenfranchised and said this is not right.They convinced Muhammad Ali to take part as well. This needs to be done today, but the players and stars of the same ilk will not stand up for causes like these men did.
I think his activism shows what kind of man and teammate Bill Russell is and was. In today’s me first world where statistics mean more than they should with fantasy leagues and big contracts, winning year-in, year-out with energy and effort, seems to be a lost art. And, with fourteen championships to his teams’ credit, win they did. Maybe that is why we may never see another Bill Russell. The team has to be bigger than the player.