Tip-Off Timer: Bill Russell at 75 Still Leaves Fans in Awe
There are former NBA greats that when they enter an arena today, they quickly attract a crowd of well-wishers and autograph-seekers, drawn like moths to a bright light after dark. Everyone wants to get close for a look or a touch.
Then there is Bill Russell, who came to watch the Celtics/Magic playoff series in Orlando two months ago. When he entered, the crowd didn't swarm. It parted, stood back and watched from a distance, too awed by his presence to approach.
They wondered how he once walked on water.
Today at age 75 (75 days before this season begins), Russell is the epitome of a living legend. Like admiring a classic piece of art, you just stand back and shake your head at the enormity of his accomplishments.
If winning is everything, Russell is everything to the NBA, unquestionably the greatest player in its history, leaving behind a record that will never be matched.
After winning back-to-back NCAA championships at the University of San Francisco (1955 and '56) and an Olympic gold medal, Russell turned the Boston Celtics into the most storied franchise in league history, winning an incredible 11 titles in his 13 seasons. He was the player/coach of the final two championships.
He came into the league as a string bean. He left as an icon, revolutionizing the game of basketball with his style of play. Unlike the ominous Wilt Chamberlain, who served as his able rival and foil, Russell dominated by blocking shots, not making them.
Never before and never since has anyone consistently changed a game so dramatically at the defensive end. He ruled the court with defense, shot blocking and rebounding, and two of the three will never be measured by statistics.
Unfortunately for Russell, blocked shots were not recorded in the NBA until 1973, long after he retired. The NBA record for most blocks in a season is 456 by Mark Eaton (1984-85). There are those that believe Russell had twice as many in several seasons. He could jump, but he also had a rare shot-blocking instinct that he carried throughout his career
"He was just so athletic, so super competitive, so smart,'' said former great Jerry West a few years ago.
History accurately recorded his rebounds that often propelled the Celtics into the fast-breaking style that marked his reign over the game. He had 1,000 or more in 12 of his 13 seasons. He averaged 24.7 rebounds in the 1963-64 season, second only to Chamberlain in NBA history. He had 49 rebounds twice in a single game. He had 51 once. His 32 rebounds, still an NBA record, in a half.
Russell was listed at 6-10, 220 pounds when he played. Today, there are NBA teams that have three or four players on the court together at least his size. When you see him today at age 75, he doesn't look the part of a giant in the game.
But he was. And he still is.