NBA great Bill Russell died Sunday at the age of 88. A Basketball Hall of Famer, Russell was the kingpin of a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 championships in 13 seasons. . . . Today, we bring you Jim Murray’s 1965 column on the amazing Bill Russell.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 14, 1965, SPORTS
Copyright 1965/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Game Is Russell’s
ST. LOUIS — An “All-Star” basketball game is like a John Wayne movie. The only reason you need all those extra people around is because the script calls for them.
It’s really a recital for 10 fingers and two legs. All those other guys are spear-carriers who will get shot by the second reel, dress extras who have to turn in their wardrobe by nightfall.
The game of basketball belongs to William Felton Russell. He rules it the way Russia rules Bulgaria — without seeming to. He asserts his might the way a Central Park mugger might. It is to his advantage that you not know he’s there until the right precise moment when he can separate you from your senses — and the ball.
Against him, the Big “O” is just a big zero. Wilt Chamberlain is just a pituitary freak. Any guy with a basketball is just a baby with a lollipop, little Red Riding Hood in the forest.
William Felton Russell dominates his sport as no man is history — not Ruth, Dempsey, Jim Brown or Bill Tilden. What they did was spectacular, dramatic. What Bill Russell does is as unnoticeable as pick-pocketing, and just as effective. Sometimes you don’t know till you check your pocket you’ve been had.
Some years ago, in a burst of zeal and arithmetic at an All-Star game, I totted up the best nights of some five basketball players who would be opposite Emperor Russell, and the total came to just under 400. I figured if they showed up sober, they couldn’t help scoring at least 200 points. I predicted the game’s first 200-point night.
By the time Bill Russell got through with them, they were lucky they could walk to the locker room without a cane.
It is a serious vexation to basketball. If you must have a superhero, it is to a sport’s advantage that he be history’s leading ground-gainer, or a one-punch knockout artist, or the man who hit 70 home runs a season. Bill Russell does what he does as unobtrusively as the groundskeeper or the guy who knits up the basket. If YOU can see him do it, he’s slowing up. Because not even the guy he does it to can be sure. All he knows is that he had it (the basketball) a minute ago. And what the hell happened to it beats him.
To tell the truth, it’s not terribly much fun. Bill Russell is playing a recital that can be heard by only a few dogs’ ears. It’s a subsonic pitch. You never even know he’s been there till you see the scoreboard. And then it doesn’t take Scotland Yard. His fingerprints are figuratively around the throat of every team that ever took the floor against him.
When Russell was in college some years ago, an eastern magazine that prided itself on having its nerve center in New York but its eyes, ears and fingers all around the rest of the world loudly ignored Bill Russell. “He’s averaging only six points a game,” they grandly informed their informant. The coach at Bill Russell’s university was helpless with laughter when he heard the quote.
When he gained control of himself, he demanded the names of the eastern players who were burning the nets — in this case, Hal “King” Lear and Tom Gola. “I want to send them ‘get well’ cards when Russ gets through with them in the NCAA,” he announced.
Bill Russell is Wellington at Waterloo, Grant at Richmond, the Russians at Stalingrad. He is where the war ends. In all the slow processes of history, defence always conquers in the end. Bill Russell is The End.
He’s almost the first athlete in history to compete in a goatee. He comes on court looking like a figure from a Balkan postage stamp. He could play in the nude and wear a spiked helmet, for all the Boston Celtics would care.
He has changed the game to a point where coaches no longer ask “What’s his average?” but instead want to know “Never mind can he make a shot, what I want to know is, can he block one?”
He has driven more people into retirement than old age. He has rattled chromosomes, destroyed confidence, has dammed up more rivers of talent than anyone in sports since Lefty Grove or Christy Mathewson.
He has made more coaches geniuses. Red Auerbach never lights up a cigar until a game is safely in hand, and already his friends are warning him to cut down on his smoking.
He has been responsible for the “goaltending” rule in the game because without it, basketball would go two years without a basket when Russell was playing.
The Boston Celtics had Cousy, Sharman, Ramsey, Auerbach, Easy Ed Macauley and quite a few hard cases before they had Russell. But since Russell, they have made the New York Yankees look like a team of in-and-outers. Basketball’s play would seem to be to take up a collection and send him to Elba. Because, with Russell, everybody else is fighting for second place. He is the bewhiskered spider under the basket, he is mischief afoot, he sucks up basketballs like a vacuum cleaner with a beard.
“With Russell,” a veteran who doesn’t want to be quoted told me, “you only hope he doesn’t eat you. Some night, when he’s up for the game, they’re going to have to count the players.”
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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The Jim Murray Memorial Foundation’s mission is to establish a permanent legacy to Jim Murray. The JMMF has joined forces with the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and MLB share significant and timeless overlapping history with Jim Murray. Jim Murray wrote more columns on baseball than he wrote on any other sport, bringing baseball’s history and legends to life through sports journalism.
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