He was the Celtics’ big break
Beyond basketball, Bill Russell took no guff from racists in and out of his sport and, it has been reasonably argued, sent the NBA on its way to becoming the most socially conscious of any major North American men’s pro league. He was the NBA’s first Black Hall of Fame player, the first Black head coach in a major American sports league, outspoken against the Vietnam War and segregation in Boston schools. Quite the legacy for Russell, who died last week at 88.
But strictly in terms of hoops, think of this: What defined the Boston Celtics during their dominance in the 1950s and ’60s was their devastating fast break, and that fast break was the direct result of Russell’s pioneering work as a shot-blocker and rebounder.
Nobody had combined the instant board control and trigger-quick outlet pass before Russell — levitating for a rebound, revolving in midair as he fed the nifty Bob Cousy, wheeling into the middle of Boston’s famous parquet floor on the dribble, whipping a pass (sometimes behind the back, sometimes between the legs, off the ear) to Tom Sanders knifing toward the basket for a layup, or Tommy Heinsohn waiting in the corner for a jumper. Or Bill Sharman or Frank Ramsey motoring into the open. Or Russell himself arriving alongside the cavalry charge downcourt.
Before Russell joined the Celtics out of the University of San Francisco in 1956, the Celtics “could run like hell and pass like hell and shoot like hell,” Cousy, the team’s perennial all-star, told me in a long-ago interview. “But we couldn’t control the boards. Not until we got Russ.”
What Russell did for the fast break in basketball was what Babe Ruth had done for the home run in baseball. With the fast break, the Celtics took basketball from subdued strings to electric guitars — from an exhibition of mostly flatfooting set-shooting and orthodox two-handed passing — to an alluring, funneling, eddying, swirling-whirling-twisting-curling vision.
The fast break was rock ’n’ roll, a cutting-edge response to the introduction of the NBA’s 24-second shot clock in 1954. Up tempo. The band on the run.
In his 1980 book (with Taylor Branch), “Second Wind: Memoirs of an Opinionated Man,” Russell gushed about the fast break: “The ball flies between three offensive players at full speed — Zip! Zip! Zip! — and lastly to the unexpected man cutting under the basket at a rakish angle who goes up and banks the ball off the glass in a layup….All this within two seconds….”
He cited the “collective beauty” of the play — an ensemble production that further illustrated Russell’s functioning as the ultimate team player.
In an appreciation on fivethirtyeight.com, Santul Nerkar and Neil Paine argued against applying “our modern, metrics-obsessed era of NBA analysis” to Russell. He averaged a relatively humble 15.1 points per game and the league had not gotten around to an official count of blocked shots — Russell’s revelatory contribution — until after he retired.
“How exactly,” Nerkar and Paine asked, “would you even measure Russell’s preternatural ability to strategically block shots so they stayed inbounds, triggering a fast break for his teammates to turn into easy points….?” Unlike the typical shot-blocker of the 21st Century, prone to spectacularly swatting the ball into the stands to emphasize personal triumph, Russell ‘s emphasis was on keeping plays alive for his teammates to immediately transition from defense to offense.
Bottom line: Russell was the center of gravity for a constant run of championship teams — twice in college, once at the Olympics, a staggering 11 times (in 13 years) with the Celtics, who never had reached the NBA finals before him. “However great you think Bill Russell was,” Nerkar and Paine concluded, “he was probably greater.”
John Havlicek, a teammate later in Russell’s career, once told Sports Illustrated that Russell “was a fantastic athlete” who “could have been the decathlon champion. He could broad jump 24 feet. He did the hurdles in 13.4. [In college, Russell’s 6–9 ½ high jump tied Charlie Dumas, who in 1956 won Olympic gold in that event.] He just might be the fastest man on the Celtics.”
Russell was 6–10 but, unlike so many plodding big men of his time, was light on his feet — instinctive, quick and agile. His long-time coach, Red Auerbach, said Russell “destroyed” opponents, not only by blocking shots but establishing the mere threat of a defensive disruption.
Nerkar and Paine wrote, “In many ways, Russell created the NBA as we know it today.” In some ways, current NBAers still haven’t caught up.