The death of Bill Russell was announced today and it is indeed a sad day. I grew up in the Russell era, and I shared with my father a huge respect for Russell as an athlete, and more importantly as a man. His impact, on the NBA, and on the nation, was in no way limited to his vast ability as a basketball player. He was more than that, but it was his outsized talent on the basketball court that brought him to us, and I could not have been luckier to have seen him play on many occasions with my Dad at the old Boston Garden. Amazingly those games were not sold out.
There is a lot to say about Russell, much of it not directly related to his basketball career. For the purposes of this post I am going to stick to basketball.
There have been many stories on the Russell basketball record, which is so extraordinary that it really seems to be beyond real. In the NCAA two consecutive national titles at the University of San Francisco as well as 55 consecutive wins. He led the U.S. to the gold medal in the 1956 Olympics, and then in the NBA led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships in 13 seasons, a record that will likely never be eclipsed. But we know that extraordinary record because it has been covered extensively after his death. Russell’s last season was 1969, and as time has elapsed some memory of Russell’s achievements, and his singular contribution to the Celtic record, has been clouded. His magnificent duels with Wilt Chamberlain, a tremendous athlete and one of the best to ever play the game, provided fans with lots to argue about. That argument, about who was the “better” player, still exists today. And the passage of time has allowed a theme to develop: Russell was a great winner, but always had the advantage of having the better team with him in the Chamberlain matchups. The resolution of that “argument” does not just impact the Russell-Chamberlain issue but points to the essential greatness of Russell himself. His achievements in his last years of playing need to be looked at in a closer way in order to understand the the centrality of Russell to the Celtic winning, and to resolve, once more, the Russell-Chamberlain debate.
As Russell entered the NBA in 1956-57 he led the Celtics to a championship, defeating the St. Louis Hawks in 7 games. In 57-58 the Celtics once again made the finals, but an injury to Russell sidelined him for much of the series against the same Hawks, who defeated the Celtics. The centrality of Russell to the Celtics winning was shown clearly by this loss. It would not be repeated for many years.
Chamberlain entered the NBA in the 1959-60 season, becoming a member of the Philadelphia Warriors. He set astounding individual records, and brought his team to the Eastern finals against the Celtics, where a close series went to the Celtics. The Warriors were a good team, but Russell definitely had a better supporting cast. Those teams met again two years later in the Eastern finals, with the Celtics winning in 7 games. Once again Russell had the superior supporting cast. With the move of the Warriors to the west coast Chamberlain continued to accumulate astounding stats, and the San Francisco Warriors made the NBA finals in 1963-64, where Russell’s Celtics were waiting for them. The Celtics crushed the Warriors 4 games to 1. Yes, Russell had the superior supporting cast that year as well.
The story begins to change a bit in the next season, as San Francisco traded Chamberlain back to Philadelphia, where the Syracuse Nationals had moved, becoming the Philadelphia 76ers. This team got Chamberlain mid-year and they were loaded with talent, with Hal Greer, Luke Jackson, Chet Walker and a strong group of supporting players. This team would further develop in the years to come. In this season the 76ers got to the Eastern finals against Boston, and took them to 7 games, before John Havlicek stole the ball on the final play of the game, preserving the Celtics win. In this cycle the 76er team was at least equal to the Celtics in terms of talent, but still lost.
The Celtics had not only won every championship since the loss to the Hawks in Russell’s second year, but they had always finished first in the East, usually by a wide margin. That was about to change, as the 76er team both matured, and added some additional talent (Billy Cunningham and Wali Jones,) bringing them to first place in the East in 1965-66, narrowly edging out the Celtics. They met again in the Eastern finals, where the Celtics crushed the 76ers in 5 games. At this point it can be said that the 76ers had the superior team, and yet Chamberlain not only lost to Russell and the Celtics but was essentially crushed.
With the 1966-67 season this 76er team truly gelled, and Chamberlain took a different path, shooting less, passing more, and really concentrating on defense. I watched that team in shock as they started out the season by winning 46 of their first 50 games, ending up 68-13 for the year. This 76er team can be safely considered to be one of the greatest to ever have played. Guards Hal Greer and Wali Jones, forwards Luke Jackson and Chet Walker, and Chamberlain at center, with Billy Cunningham coming off the bench. They once again met the second place Celtics in the Eastern finals. That was a painful series for the Celtics, as the 76ers essentially stomped them, winning that series in 5 games, with some of the games big blow-outs. The Celtics were still a good team, but they had been eclipsed by Wilt and the 76ers. Lots of talk about the changing of the guard, and how Wilt had finally given Russell a comeuppance. No doubt that the 76ers were the better team.
The 1967-68 season, Russell’s next to last, had the 76er juggernaut again with the best record in the NBA, winning the East by a full 8 games over the Celtics. Chamberlain actually led the NBA in assists during the regular season. The 76er offense was something beautiful to watch, with Chamberlain, in the post, picking teams apart by having the offense flow around his presence. With wide expectations of a second title the 76ers again met the Celtics in the Eastern finals, and quickly established a 3 games to 1 series lead. It looked like the series from the prior year. Despite the many who had written Russell and the Celtics off the team rallied and won 3 consecutive games to win the series and become the first NBA team to come back from a 3-1 series deficit. It was a shocking end to that 76er team, as Chamberlain would be traded to the Lakers in the offseason. This series win, against arguably one of the best teams in NBA history, most certainly is a rather forceful rebuttal of the canard that Russell always had the better team. Russell beat that 76er team 3 times out of 4 meetings, but the old man was not quite finished yet.
The 1968-69 season was Russell’s last, and the Celtic roster had become a bit old and a bit tired. They had some pretty good players, including a John Havlicek that was coming into his own, the great Sam Jones, also in his last year, an older Bailey Howell, Larry Siegfried, and Emmett Bryant. Tom Sanders was still there as well. This older group finished fourth in the East that year, the last playoff spot available. They had to face the second place 76ers, without Chamberlain but with that great group of players still there. The Celtics easily won that series, and moved on to the New York Knicks. That Knick team would win the championship the very next year, and they were indeed a powerful team, anchored by the great Willis Reed. The Celtics dispatched them as well. That brought Russell and the Celtics to the finals, where Wilt and the LA Lakers were waiting.
After the Wilt trade to the Lakers the NBA had its first super-team, with Wilt, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor forming the nucleus of a powerhouse. The Jerry West psychological torture, brought on by losing to Russell’s Celtics multiple times in the finals, would finally come to an end. West, and Wilt, were convinced that this was the year that string of losses would end. After the first two games in L.A. it looked like they might be right, as the Lakers took a 2-0 series lead. The Lakers had a chance to put the Celtics away in game 4 in Boston but Sam Jones hit a runner off the wrong foot at the buzzer to even the series. After trading home wins the Celtics had to play game 7 in LA, where the Lakers were so sure of victory that they had the rafters filled with balloons to celebrate. With Chamberlain taking himself out of the game at a key point the Celtics, who had built a big lead, hung on for the victory. Russell left the court for the final time as a champion, having defeated a vastly superior Laker team with Wilt. That Laker team, a couple of years later, would win 33 straight games and become champions. But not in 1969.
Russell’s basketball legacy is not just as a guy who had great teams and managed to win. He willed victory when he had no right to expect it. He was a monster talent, and he changed the game of basketball forever. Russell famously said; “I created the vertical game.” Of that there can be no doubt.
Red was a genius, and the Celtics had some truly great players (imagine having Cousy and Sharman starting, and Sam and KC Jones as the backups?) but without Russell there could not have been the success. When someone tells you that Russell always had the better teams just call that out for the nonsense it always has been. There is but one GOAT in NBA history, and his name was William Felton Russell.
Books to read:
Tall Men Short Shorts: The 1969 NBA Finals. Wilt, Russ, Lakers, Celtics and a Very Young Sports Reporter. Leigh Montville
Go Up for Glory: Bill Russell
Season of the 76ers: The Story of Wilt Chamberlain and the 1967 NBA Champion Philadelphia 76ers. Wayne Lynch
West by West. Jerry West