The Best Teammate Ever

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.

14 thoughts on “The Best Teammate Ever

  1. Good blog and a great choice of an athlete who deserves our adulation. I have always been a big fan of Bill Russell and had a dear friend who recently died who actually played against him in college. Where have all the Russells gone??

  2. OMG! All through my school years, grade to college, I would try to find a TV to watch a Celtics game featuring Russell. We often had the stations replay the games late at night, via recording, which I would watch. Being from Mass. at the time, who else could I root for?

    You’ve described Russell’s playing skills perfectly. Along with such great teammates as Bob Cousy, Tom Havelechek, Sam and K.C. Jones, the drive to win as individuals and teams could not be beat. I remember the great matchups with the Philadelphia 76ers’ and Detroit Pistons, Jerry West and as you mentioned, Chamberlain, and overall, the great competition. Your description of Chamberlain is right on, he was more outgoing, always in front of the cameras (A position Russell hated to be in) but as skilled a player as he was, nowhere as driven as Russell.

    And I totally agree with your assessments regarding today’s money central players. When it comes to true character, there is no comparison between Russell and these cardboard cutouts. Russell once famously said that he was paid to be the best player he could be, to be a team player, but he was not paid to coddle up to the fans or the press. Imagine some of today’s players having the courage to take such a stand?

    Thanks for a great trip down memory lane! The Celtics were never the same after Bill Russell and Red Auerbach.

    • Thanks Barney. I had a feeling you might have liked the Celtics. I find it interesting, that Wilt played on one of the best teams ever with the Lakers in 1972, which had West, Goodrich, Hairston, etc., but he played that year like Bill Russell used to and scored less. I read once that Russell and Chamberlain were good friends. I love seeing the old names. Here is a few more – Satch Sanders, Bailey Howell and Tommy Heinsohn.

      • I forgot all about Heinson! My Bad!!! I do recall the others. Those were great days, and ironically, I think their dedication was to the game, not the money like today’s players.

  3. “Where have all the Russells gone?” What a wonderful comment from Hugh!

    How I loved this post! My (newer) friends always look at me with bewilderment when I see the NCAA on a television screen, and I go a bit nuts trying to absorb and catch up! Every so often a good friend will write and give me an SEC report; a friend of mine from Charlotte still works that tourney, though he’s retired. That was always his favorite event!

    Once when I was back in Mississippi on a month visit, the sweet sixteen was going on, and the Ole Miss Rebels/Rod Barnes team was doing well. I clocked out from visiting everyone and ducked into a popular restaurant w/a bar and big-screen television. I visited with the ‘guys’ on my left and right during commercial breaks, but when Rod’s team was back on the screen, I was there on the courts making every move with them.

    During one commercial break, the bartender slid a beer to me. “I didn’t ask for a beer,” i said.
    He smiled and nodded to someone on the far side of the restaurant and said, ‘The man over there said that he likes how you watch basketball.’

    Commercial break was over, and I was back on the courts… At the next commercial I asked, “Now who sent that beer? I’d like to thank him…”

    The bartender smiled,”He’s gone…”
    As you can see, I really really love basketball, and reading this post was like being front row center and admiring a true sports legend at his finest.

    Thank you for enhancing the quality of my day.

    • An Ole Miss fan. Different sport, but I got to see Archie Manning and the Rebels play against Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan and the Auburn Tigers in the Gator Bowl. Archie turned out to be much better and far more exciting than Pat.

      Back to basketball, I am glad the SEC is so competitive now. For the longest time, it was UK and everyone else. Each year, someone would take a run at them, but the next year it would be someone else. Now, the conference is quite good. Enjoy the weekend.

      • Archie was certainly a legend; he was from the same county as my family, so we stayed tuned, including an all-day event called, ‘archie day” in drew, mississippi.

        yes, UK dominated basketball for a long time! now all of that seems so far away; futbol is THE sport of latin america, though baseball, of course, is strong in some.

        i find myself wondereing where rod barnes is now… his father worked for my former husband, and his mother was like family… i think a search is due, but not tonight. time for slumber!


      • When I saw the name Rod Barnes, I first thought of Hot Rod Hundley who played with Jerry West. He used to speak of the night he and Jerry scored 73 points together to bring their team victory. Jerry scored 71 and Rod scored 2. I will be interested in your findings for Rod Barnes. I hope you had a nice slumber. BTG

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