This week’s NBA Legend is one of the all-time greats of basketball, Boston Celtics hero Bill Russell.
There have been many sporting dynasties over the last number of decades, which have been eulogized and celebrated by fans for many years. Whether it be Kerry or Kilkenny, Manchester United or Liverpool, Munster or Leinster, there have been numerous teams who have dominated their respective sports over certain periods of time.
However, across the pond in the US of A, mention the phrase “Sports Dynasty” to an American sports fan and it is very likely the first team they will think of is the Boston Celtics.
During the NBA’s formative years of the 40s and 50s, there were understandably a number of issues which needed to be resolved and new developments were being made on an almost yearly basis.
Though the George Mikan-led Minneapolis Lakers established themselves as the first NBA dynasty, the league was relatively wide open by the mid-50s with many teams considering themselves viable contenders.This would change in 1956, when the Celtics, who already included star guard Bob Cousy on their roster, drafted a 6ft 10in center by the name of Bill Russell.
The next 13 years would see the Celtics dominate the NBA in a fashion, which no American sports team has done in any of the major leagues before or since. From 1957 to 1969 the Celtics won an astonishing 11 NBA championships out of a possible 13 including a now incomprehensible 8 in a row.
Though this Celtics team boasted some all-time great players such as Cousy, Sam Jones and KC Jones, and was guided by a phenomenal coach in Red Auerbach, there is little doubt that Russell was its fulcrum.
Russell was not exceptionally strong, nor was he exceptionally talented, but he played the game with an intelligence and selflessness which enabled him and his teammates to play to their full potential. As Russell puts it “Concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory.”
Offence was not an area of the game where Russell excelled, as his career averages of 15.1 PPG and .440 FG% suggest. Where Russell most influenced the game was on the defensive end, where his aforementioned intelligence combined with an unparalleled defensive intensity enabled him to strangle the life out of his opponents’ offensive threats.
In particular it was his shot-blocking and rebounding ability at both ends of the court, which enabled Russell to stifle the opposition. Shot-blocking, though not a recorded statistic when Russell played, was a skill that Boston’s defensive lynchpin utilized to great effect because not only did it intimidate the players he was guarding but he also had a canny knack of starting fast break opportunities with his blocks.
While Russell’s defensive attributes made him a hugely influential player, in 1959 an offensive phenomenon the likes of which the NBA had never seen was about to enter the league and change the legacy of both he, Russell and the NBA itself.
Rivalry with Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt Chamberlain was about as dominant an offensive player as the league has ever seen. He holds numerous scoring and rebounding records, including his legendary 100-point game, and upon entering the NBA immediately became the league’s greatest scorer and biggest star.
It did not take fans of the NBA long to realise that the prospect of Russell’s defensive prowess inevitably colliding with Chamberlain’s offensive threat was truly mouthwatering and one which they could look forward to for years to come. It was a case of Chamberlain’s irresistible force meeting Russell’s immovable object.
While both Russell and Chamberlain shared some similarities on the court, both were dominant centers; both were phenomenal rebounders and both could singlehandedly change games, it was their general outlook on the game of basketball that put them in stark contrast to each other.
Russell’s game revolved around his team and he would do everything in his power to lead his team to victory. Chamberlain on the other hand was your archetypal one-man show, whose philosophy was simple, give me the ball and we will win.
Despite their obvious differences when it came to how basketball should be played, Russell and Chamberlain shared a deep respect for each other and had a strong off-court friendship.
However, this friendship was purely off-court. Once on the hardwood neither player gave an inch to each other and when we consider their results against each other the old adage of “Offence wins games, defence wins championships” rings through, with Russell’s Celtics winning eight out of the nine play-off matches against Chamberlain led teams.
Racist Abuse and Civil Rights Involvement
Russell, like so many African-Americans of that era, suffered constant racial abuse throughout his childhood and career. From his early days in high school, through college and even in the NBA, he was persistently jeered by fellow students and fans alike.
This abuse followed Russell into the professional game and there were numerous occasions where he and his black teammates were denied service in restaurants or forced to stay in different sections of hotels when the Celtics were on the road. This may seem strange, when taking into account that today’s NBA is dominated by black players, but back when Russell played the league’s stars were primarily white and America was yet to embrace the civil rights movement.
Similarly, Russell felt he was never quite embraced in the same way his white teammates were by the Boston public and this led to him having quite a fractious relationship with the Celtics fans.
This understandably upset Russell, who was notorious for refusing to sign fans autographs, and his disdain went so far that he even refused to attend his own jersey retirement and Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Russell’s attitude towards the Celtics and the city in general has softened over the years and in 2013 a statue of the Boston number 6 was unveiled.
A true pioneer in the professional era of basketball, Bill Russell redefined how the center position could and should be played. His defensive prowess was the foundation on which American sports greatest ever dynasty was built and the accomplishments of his Boston Celtics team ensure that his legacy will be forever remembered.
His defiance in the face of constant racism speaks volumes of the man and highlights the mental toughness and self-belief, which enabled him to be one of the most dominant players to play the game. His achievements both on and off court are truly astonishing and his influence on the league is perhaps best underlined by the fact that the award for the Most Valuable Player in the NBA Finals has recently been named in his honour.
NBA Career Statistics: PPG: 15.1, RPG: 22.5, APG: 4.3.
NBA Honours: NBA Champion x11, NBA MVP x5, NBA All-Star x12, NBA All-Star Game MVP x1, Member of Basketball Hall of Fame.
Brian Bowler, Pundit Arena.