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We Are Grown Men Playing a Child’s Game

  Bill Russell, the dark, gainly and responsible man who is center and co-captain of the Boston Celtics, the perennial champions of the National Basketball Association, is, without question, one of the most remarkable athletes of our time, yet he regards his life up to now as a waste. “I don’t consider anything I have done,” he has said, “as contributing to society. I consider playing professional basketball as marking time, the most shallow thing in the world.” Russell is not biting the hand that feeds him and his family; he is too canny and practical a man. He is not sullying basketball in any meaningful sense, either. It is, rather, that he is close to 30 years old and has made certain judgments that seem to him so correct and obvious that he is not afraid to enunciate them: basketball, or any other sport, is, at bottom, frivolous, and the imposition of being a Negro at-this moment in history is an obligation that cannot be met on the floor of the Boston Garden. Where and how he can fulfill it Russell does not yet know.

In six full seasons with the Celtics, Russell has been selected four times by the players in the league as the NBA’s most valuable player, including the last three years in succession; on the other two occasions he was runner-up. Before Russell joined the Celtics late in 1956, they had led the league in scoring for the five foregoing years but, nonetheless, each year the Celtics had been eliminated in the divisional playoffs. In Russell’s tenure Boston has won six of seven championships. The only year it lost out—1958—Russell was injured during the final playoff series and did not play in two of the last three games. His contributions to his team’s welfare are, however, often unsung. Not long ago, for instance, it was—who else?—Russell who found a teammate’s contact lens on the court. “Do I have to do everything for this club?” he said, with an indulgent smile.

What makes Russell’s achievements most noteworthy is that he is primarily a defensive player in what, prior to his time and success, was threatening to become an almost wholly offensive game. “Basketball,” says Red Auerbach, the Boston coach, “is like war, in that offensive weapons are developed first, and it always takes a while for the defense to catch up. Russell has had the biggest impact on the game of anyone in the last 10 years because he has instituted a new defensive weapon—that of the blocked shot. He has popularized the weapon to combat the aggressive, running-type game. He is by far the greatest center ever to play the game.” By Russell’s own admission, he can block shots only 5% of the time, and even less frequently against such gifted shooters as Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson. What makes him such a formidable and dominant figure is, as he says, that “they don’t know which 5% it will be.”

Says Bill Russell: “Basketball is a game that involves a great deal of psychology. The psychology in defense is not blocking a shot or stealing a pass or getting the ball away. The psychology is to make the offensive team deviate from their normal habits. This is a game of habits, and the player with the most consistent habits is the best. What I try to do on defense is to make the offensive man do not what he wants but what I want. If I’m back on defense and three guys are coming at me, I’ve got to do something to worry all three. First I must make them slow up or stop. Then I must force them to make a bad pass and take a bad shot and, finally, I must try to block the shot. Say the guy in the middle has the ball and I want the guy on the left to take the shot. I give the guy with the ball enough motion to make him stop. Then I step toward the man on the right, inviting a pass to the man on the left; but, at the same time, I’m ready to move, if not on my way, to the guy on the left. I’m giving away all my secrets.”

“What Russell really does,” says teammate Tommy Heinsohn, “is demoralize. The other players are afraid to take their normal shots. Instead, they’re looking to see what Russell will do.” As Bill Bridges of the St. Louis Hawks said recently, “Russell told me I better bring pepper and salt to the next game. He told me I was going to eat basketballs.” Indeed, the ball has come to be known by the pros as a Wilson burger, after its manufacturer.

“In my modest opinion,” says Russell, who is not a particularly good shooter, “shooting is of relatively little importance in a player’s overall game. Almost all of us in the NBA are All-Americas. We became All-Americas by averaging 20 points or more a game, so by the layman’s standards all of us can shoot. It’s the other phases of the game that make the difference. If you’re going to score 15 and let your man score 20 you’re a deficit. If your value to the team is strictly as a shooter, you are of very little value. Offense is the first thing you learn as a kid in any sport: catch a pass, dribble, bat, shoot. You learn the offensive aspects of a game long before you learn there even are defensive aspects. These are the skills you come by naturally. Defense is hard work because it’s unnatural.

“Defense is a science,” Russell says, “not a helter-skelter thing you just luck into. Every move has six or seven years of work behind it. In basketball your body gets to do things it couldn’t do in normal circumstances. You take abnormal steps, you have to run backward almost as fast as you can run forward. On defense you must never cross your legs while running, and that’s the most natural thing to do when changing direction. Instead, you try to glide like a crab. You have to fight the natural tendencies and do things naturally that aren’t natural.

“In rebounding, position is the key. No two objects can occupy the same place at the same time. Seventy-five percent of the rebounds are taken below the height of the rim, so timing is important, because almost everyone in the league can reach the top of the rim. A really important part of rebounding is being able to jump up more than once. You have to keep trying for that ball. Sometimes you jump four or five times before you can get your hands on it. I used to practice jumping over and over again. When I was 6 feet 2, I could jump to the top of the rim 35 times, over and over.

“You have to have strong hands. Most of the time three guys will have their hands on the ball at the same time, and you have to be able to grab it away. I guess I just naturally have strong hands, but if I didn’t I would exercise until they were strong. But getting the ball is only half the job. Then you have to do something with it.”