Winning The Goal
Why Bill Russell was more revolutionary than most realize.
by Bijan C. Bayne
March 2 marked the 50th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain’s monumental feat of scoring 100 points in a game against the New York Knicks. As astronomical an accomplishment as that was, legendary Boston Celtic Bill Russell was able to impact the game far more by preventing scoring than Chamberlain did with his offensive explosions.
Have you ever wondered why basketball scores are so much higher than those in hockey and soccer? At first, the answer seems obvious—hockey and soccer scorers can’t use their hands. Basketball games generally feature more possessions. But the main difference is that the other sports have a goalkeeper to defend prospective scorers, as does lacrosse.
What does that have to do with Bill Russell and his Celtics winning 11 NBA Championships in 13 seasons? Decades ago, when basketball scores were relatively low, the pace was determined by a center jump after each made basket. Not long after the institution of the NBA shot clock in 1954, Bill Russell made his genius evident by becoming an uncanny shot blocker—basketball’s closest approximation to a goaltender. Thus, a player who was the 16th man on his high school team as a 10th grader, made himself into a champion without needing to control the ball.
This Einsteinian change allowed Russell to win nearly twice as many titles as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Larry Bird. Russell must have had a “thought experiment” concerning a way to have an impact in the fast-paced game. To get back on defense to protect his goal, he had to run the floor well.
His blocks were actually deliberate taps that kept the ball in play (swatting the ball out of bounds would have returned it to the offensive team). Russell studied shooters’ and drivers’ tendencies. He was careful not to goaltend—thus his limitations were quite different than those in soccer, hockey and lacrosse. He inserted a factor into his game as significant as speedy baserunning in baseball, or frequent forward passing in football. Thus in an era when the greatest offensive threats were rival big men such as Dolph Schayes, Bob Pettit, Wilt Chameberlain and Jerry Lucas, Bill Russell became the constant of one of the greatest dynasties in American team sport.
Russell’s emergence coincided with marked increases in offensive firepower around the NBA, making his presence all the more valuable. In ‘59-60, Russell’s fourth season, Jack Twyman (31 ppg) and Wilt Chamberlain (37 ppg) became the first two NBA players to average more than 30 points per game over a season. Within a couple years, Chamberlain was averaging his historic 50 a night, and Los Angeles’ Elgin Baylor was pouring in 38 a game. Oscar Robertson came into the League in 1960 as a 30 ppg scorer. In ‘61-62, NBA teams averaged 118 points a game, a record that still stands.
While all this was occurring, Russell further solidified himself as a defensive force. It was his ability to block, change and deter shots that forged the Celtics’ dynasty. Chamberlain, Baylor (and his eventual fellow high scorer Jerry West) and Robertson, were unable to translate their offensive prowess into Championship banners. Defense wins Championships.
Scoring waves come and go with the pace of the offensive game, or the new schoolyard moves Baylor and Robertson helped introduce—spins, off-balance shots, hang time. But Russell’s protection of the basket allowed his teammates to cheat on defense, funnel their offensive opponents toward him, not stress if they blew an assignment, and initiate fast breaks after Russell’s blocked shots and rebounds.
Wilt’s averaging 50 did not have the same positive effect on both ends of the court for his teammates. Robertson, who was arguably the best all-around scorer, passer and rebounder ever, played in only one NBA Eastern Conference Final during his prime, despite playing alongside Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas (also capable of frequent 30-point performances). Baylor and West played in several NBA Finals against Boston, but the Lakers never overcame the Russell Factor. Robertson won his only NBA title, as a veteran teammate of a young Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Few fans appreciate the fact that even in the sports where the goalies are allowed to station themselves at goal, offensive icons such as Wayne Gretzky and Pelé were far better known than the goalkeepers on their Championship teams. Such was Russell’s dominance (without controlling the basketball offensively, as Bird, Magic and Jordan required to be effective) that his 11 titles dwarfs the team success of offensive team sports stars the likes of Dan Marino, Jim Brown, Willie Mays and Eric Dickerson.
Russell did other things very well for his Celtics, including pass and rebound, but his defensive court intelligence placed him in his own league, 15 years before the NBA even considered blocked shots important enough to log them statistically. This distinction demonstrates that Russell honed a specialty for which there was no numerical or individual credit (imagine if we had no idea how many home runs Babe Ruth hit in the 1920s, or how many shutouts Sandy Koufax registered). Very un-Wilt.
To perfect a skill for which no statistical merit was attached, speaks to Bill Russell’s visionary grasp of the team concept, and his appreciation for the psychological aspect of his inside defense. Though no one compiled numbers for his nightly totals of blocked shots, the effect of opponents’ morale was palpable. Two-time NBA scoring champ Neil Johnston, a devoted hook-shooting center, was virtually rendered ineffective by Russell. And while Chamberlain, a much younger man than Johnston, still had great performances against Russell, his teammates generally did not, and even Wilt was forced to work harder for his offense, and even to receive the basketball, in those games.
The Celtics’ string of Championships created a belief among many fans and media, that Russell was a winner, focused on results, whereas “The Big Dipper” (Chamberlain) was obsessed with his own stats. That placed even more pressure on Wilt to play well during their confrontations. Had Russell never been born, or had he not decided to master goal protection, there is no telling how many NBA titles Elgin Baylor and Jerry West would have won together.
In retrospect, Russell was not only the most dominant basketball player, but arguably had the most impact on his game of any athlete in the history of American team sports. More than Babe Ruth, whose home run prowess shifted baseball strategy toward the longball, or the NHL’s Bobby Orr, the first defenseman to score 100 points in a season, Russell did something no one has done before or since. From the defensive end of the professional basketball court, he was the center of the longest Championship reign in the history of his sport. Add the fact that his college team set an NCAA record for consecutive victories, and the separation from Chamberlain, and even Jordan, becomes clear.
When Russell retired in 1969, the Celtics became one of the worst teams in the League. The goateed goalkeeper was gone. The revolution began and ended with William Felton Russell.