HOUSTON – NBA All-Star weekend is the one time every year where the past, present and future of the game are all on full display.
Few stars of the past, present or future shine as bright as Bill Russell, aka “The Lord of the (Championship) Rings.” The Boston Celtics great and Hall of Famer recently celebrated his 79th birthday. The party continued over the weekend as he made his annual pilgrimage to the All-Star city and spent some time sharing his wisdom with the current stars who seek his counsel.
A five-time MVP, 11-time NBA champion and 12-time All-Star in his 13 seasons with the Celtics, Russell was also a pioneer for African-American professional athletes, serving as a key voice and figure during the civil rights era.
The embodiment of the phrase “Barrier Breaker,” Russell will be featured in “Mr. Russell’s House,” the second of a three-hour documentary block on NBA TV Monday that begins with “One on One with Ahmad Rashad: Michael Jordan” at 8 p.m. Bill Simmons’ interview with Russell, “Mr. Russell’s House,” will follow at 9 p.m., and Ernie Johnson’s interview with Charles Barkley, “Sir Charles at 50,” wraps things up at 10 p.m.
Russell carved out some time in his busy weekend schedule to visit with NBA.com. Here are some excerpts:
NBA.com: On a weekend when all of the start of the NBA are out, past, present and future, what’s the most common question you get from today’s players when they come up and talk to you and spend time with you?
Bill Russell: Is anybody really that old [laughing]? I like to respect the guys that are playing now in the All-Star games. I watch sometimes three games in a single night on the NBA package. The thing I like, is I watch to see what their agenda is and how well they carry it out. That’s how you can enjoy the games. There are a lot of accomplished players playing now. I think more than ever. Just to get a chance to watch them is a joy.
NBA.com: What makes them so accomplished, the skill level? Have they come that far over the years in terms of size and skill?
BR: When you talk about skill level, you can’t say the way they played in the 1950s and 60s. Skill level is based on how the game is played today. There are different fundamentals. When I played there was never a 3-point shot. Going to the hoop and dunking is commonplace now. It was not commonplace then. According to the rules today, the skill level is off the charts. And if someone wants the skill level to be based on the way they played the game 50 years ago, they’re a silly person. If you take the time to understand the rules, the skill level is there.
NBA.com: When you look at the evolution of some of the positions now, do you agree with the suggestion of some people that the traditional big man is one that seems to have really changed with the stretch fours and 7-footers that don’t play on the low block?
BR: That’s a fallacy. The way the game’s played, when you have a unique player, whatever his position is, that’s where the game is going. When I was a kid growing up there was a guy named Hank Luisetti played at Stanford and he’s the first player to shoot one-handed with great success. I remember reading something at that time where a coach said if he ever catches one of his players shooting with one hand, they’ll never play another minute. But things change. And if you get a great player at any position, the game is copycat. Nowadays, your star is always your shooting guard. But if you come with a center that can really play, the game will revolve around the center. Or if you have a [power forward] who can really play, the game revolves around him. So the game changes according to who is playing. I have this thought, you never get to a place where you ask a player to play against a ghost … past, present or future. You can only play against the people that show up when you play. And so how you dominate that era, that’s the only thing you can say. Now if you’re talking about scoring, you can’t get past Wilt Chamberlain, so what they do nowadays is they ignore what Wilt Chamberlain did. They don’t even bring it up. The fact that one season he averaged 50 points a game. His average. So you now you talk about guys scoring 30 points or 35 points. And that’s a long way from his average. You talk about assists, Oscar [Robertson] averaged a triple-double. And now they’re talking about a double-double. So what you are doing is choosing which stats you want to emphasize and make that most important. The people that decide that really don’t know what’s going on. You talk about rebounding. Wilt averaged 22.9 rebounds for 14 years. Averaging almost 23 if you round it off, for 14 seasons. Now the leading rebounder might have average 12 or 13. Wilt and myself had over 20,000 rebounds. That’s 20,000 one at a time. If you’re going to talk about numbers, it has nothing to do with anything. It’s about how you dominate your contemporaries in the game. People that say look at the numbers, that means they don’t know what they are looking at. A guy can play and almost never do his numbers indicate how good he is. You have to watch him and see what he does. Is he a positive part of the equation for your team?
NBA.com: You said you watch up to three games a night. Who is the most dominant player you see now in the game, in terms of the things you talked about, not the numbers but impact on the game?
BR: Well, of course, at this point you start with LeBron James coming off the championship year. He’s a great player. A really great player. I think the way Kevin Durant gets his point is a big help, because he’s not always the first option. That makes a lot of difference. Before he got hurt, I thought Derrick Rose was really an important player. But I like to watch all of these guys and see what they are doing and see how it impacts their team play.
NBA.com: When you take a hard look at the players off the court, in terms of what they deal with as professional athletes, how drastic do you think that difference is compared to what you and your contemporaries had to deal with during your playing days?
BR: I have a lot of respect for these guys that are playing now because I look at the world they inherited. For example, to hold them to what happened when I was a young guy and what’s happening now is totally unfair. The world has changed. It’s changed completely in a lot of different ways. So to say, “Well, if those guys did this to make a way for you,” hey, the second and third generation, you can’t hold them to standards that are obsolete. All you can hope is they build on what went on before them and not just relax with it. Because if you relax with it, it’ll go away.
NBA.com: The Celtics, a team near and dear to your heart, when you see the transition they are going through right now with guys like Kevin Garnett at this stage of his career, where do you think of that team and where their future lies?
BR: Well, I don’t know. After the lockout a lot of teams changed. I think it’s too early to tell. One of the keys to winning is how the team plays together. And sometimes that takes a lot of time. A lot of GMs have a real serious question: do you let the team grow old together or do you start making changes so they don’t grow old together? And that’s guesswork. You take a young team that’s really good, do you keep them together or do you keep tinkering with the edges? And no one knows what’s going to happen. Some teams grow together and some teams grow apart. And as the GM or ownership you have to be able to look ahead in the proper fashion. It takes knowledge of how the game is played, who’s playing it and how you can best utilize your position.
NBA.com: You hear a lot of people talk about it, but how do you know, as a player, when you have a group capable of winning a championship?
BR: You have to tinker with it for at least a year to find out what you have and what you need. Now what you need a lot of times is already there. But how do you get the best out of what you had? You have teams always looking to get somebody else’s players. But the key is taking what you have and making the best out of them. Red [Auerbach] used to have a theory, there was a trade offered to him my last year, and I said, “you didn’t make that deal?” And he said no. I said, “why not?” He said, getting a better player does not always make you a better team. That explains why we never made one trade in the 13 years I was there Sometimes you get a better player and it makes you less of a team.
NBA.com: Do you like the freedom of movement that this system allow players or do you miss the days of a player being with the same organization for 13 or 15 years?
BR: Well, this is what I call the era of free agency, at its best or worst, depending on how you look at it. I think that when you maintain the right approach you can get a core of players that will stay with your franchise.
NBA.com: Player, coach or GM. Which one is the toughest job in basketball.
BR: Player. Because no matter what the coach or the GM says, it’s still competition between players.