Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

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Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by spikeD on Wed Nov 25, 2009 12:15 pm

Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic took place on December 22, 1956. It was a matinee with the St. Louis Hawks at Boston Garden that was televised nationally as the NBA Game of the Week. Attendance at Celtics games had averaged less than 7,000 so far that year. More than 11,000 fans who could have watched at home bought tickets to see the rookie sensation in person.

Bill was a phenomenon if ever there was one, a 6’ 10” center with the speed and agility of a guard. He had won back to back NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal. He had performed the most noble act at the Olympics, giving up his chance to compete for a medal in the high jump, so that a friend could have a spot on the track and field team. Red Auerbach was so impressed that, before the draft, he traded smooth scoring, fan favorite Ed Macauley, an All-Star, and a highly touted prospect, Cliff Hagen, to the St. Louis Hawks to obtain Bill’s rights.

It was as though some galactic alignment of the basketball universe occurred that late December day in Boston Garden, as the Celtics prepared to play the same Hawks with whom they made the blockbuster trade. The Hawks had benefitted greatly from the trade. They already had the best player in the league in Bob Pettit. Macauley and Hagen gave the Hawks two more scorers who also played tough defense.

Bill Russell hadn’t played basketball in over a month. He had just returned from his honeymoon. He’d signed a contract for $24,000 per season: only Bob Cousy, perennial league leader in assists, All-Star, and household name, earned more at $25,000.

Bill practiced twice with his new team in the days before the game. Red took Bill aside and informed him that he was going to cover Pettit, that Pettit was going to eat his lunch, but it was the only way for Bill to learn how to play Pettit. Red hammered home a simple message: Stay with Pettit everywhere he goes, don’t get frustrated, be tough.

During Bill’s first practice, the Celtics starting center, twelve-year veteran Arnie Risen, told him, “Stay after practice. I have a few things to show you.” Risen pointed out the spots on the floor where Pettit liked to take his shot. He told Bill that Pettit didn’t like to dribble more than 3 times, that his left hand was no good.

In those two practices, Red kept telling Bill, “It’s a tough game.” This was because Red was concerned about his toughness. Bill had never really been physically challenged in college. That was due to change dramatically in the pros, where every player quickly got “the question” put to him.

Bill had never faced a frontcourt as big and talented as the Hawks’: Macauley was 6’ 8”, Pettit was 6’ 9”, and Charlie Share was 6’ 10”, all savvy veterans. Pettit won Rookie of the Year in 1955 and MVP in 1956. He was strong, he could score at will, and, he was a voracious rebounder.

Pettit got the Hawks off to a fast start as Bill sat on the bench next to Red and watched. After 5 minutes, Red sent him in to a hungry roar from the crowd.

At first, the pace of the game was difficult for Bill to adjust to. Both teams liked to run and did – at a breakneck pace. Bill was blessed with tremendous natural speed and was so well-trained and well-conditioned, that even though he hadn’t played in a while, and had never played at such a pace, and against such competition, he found he could keep up, even grab the occasional rebound and make an outlet pass.

Nevertheless, in the ten minutes of the first half that Bill was out there, Pettit took him to school, as Red had said he would. Pettit shot right over Bill, went straight up so quickly, and had such a sweet stroke on his shot, that it was a thing of beauty to watch. He even went around Bill for layups and beat him to rebounds. He never stopped running, never gave up on a play, and made a point to push, shove and pound on the rookie every chance he got.

During a timeout, Bill glanced at the Hawks bench and Pettit was standing straight, not even breathing heavily. “Doesn’t that guy ever get tired?” Bill wondered aloud.

During halftime, Bill worked out with geometrical precision exactly how he could block Pettit’s supposedly unstoppable jump shot. After missing every shot and free throw he took in the first half, Bill figured he had to do something to make up for his shortcomings.

Many basketball experts predicted that Bill would not succeed in the NBA. In the pros, the center was the primary offensive option. Centers needed to be able to shoot from outside as well as drive to the basket.

From beyond 8 feet, he couldn’t hit the backboard: forget the net. But Bill didn’t have to shoot; he was so quick and so smart, he scored easily inside on dunks, tip-ins and put-backs. He averaged 20 points per game at USF.

Bill could score but that wasn’t his game. He was a master at the neglected art of defense. The official scorers didn’t count blocked shots in those days, but they counted rebounds. He averaged 20 rebounds per game at USF.

The Celtics were down by 16 points at the 5 minute mark of the third quarter, when Red called Bill’s number again.

Bill felt more comfortable with the pace of the game right away in the second half. Everyone out there could run fast, but Bill still felt he was the fastest man on the floor.

He first announced his presence by stepping into a passing lane and stealing the ball. It was almost as if the man who made the bad pass somehow had missed seeing Bill, even though Bill was right in front of him, just off to the side. No one knew it yet, but Bill had found a way to hide in the ball-handler's blind spot.

Next time the Hawks had the ball, one of the guards got around his man and drove for a layup. Bill left his own man, came out of nowhere, leaped, cleanly blocked the shot, but got called for goaltending.

In the blink of an eye, Red was charging down the sideline, waving a rolled up program and shouting a string of invective. He harassed and harangued the referee so vehemently and so vociferously that eventually he was called for a technical.

Bill watched the display with a disbelieving smile. He had never seen Red in action before, never seen any coach quite so incendiary. It was more than astonishment. For the first time in his life he had a coach who would fight for him. For a young man whose college coach had told him not to block shots, it was an exponential feeling.

Now the Hawks had the ball and it went to Pettit in his favorite spot. Pettit elevated and let the ball fly. Bill timed it perfectly, leaping straight up, 4 or 5 feet off the floor. While still on the way up, Bill tipped the bottom of the ball, so the ball went straight up, too. For a second, Bill seemed to hover in the air, waiting for the ball to come down; then, he grabbed it, guarding it with both elbows and knees flaring. He landed lightly, looked up the court and saw Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn racing for the basket, and made a perfect outlet pass.

Bill wasn’t quite so locked into the game that he didn’t notice the whole building shaking with the thunderous roaring of the crowd. While high above courtside, Johnny Most’s raspy, gravelly voice shouted out a string of superlatives to the fans listening to the radio.

Bill blocked Pettit’s shot 2 more times, gobbled up every defensive rebound, and made every Hawk think twice before bringing the ball within 15 feet of the basket. Not long after the Celtics took the lead, Red removed the now exhausted rookie from the game. The crowd was still cheering wildly when play resumed.

Pettit wasn’t the same for the rest of the game and the Celtics won with a few seconds left on a jump shot by Bill Sharman.

In his first game as a Celtic, in 21 minutes of playing time, Bill Russell collected 16 rebounds and 6 points on 3 for 11 shooting. He missed 3 free throws. But, he led his team back from a 16 point deficit against a very talented team and 3 times he blocked the shot of the league’s MVP.

After the game, as Bill walked off the floor at Red Auerbach’s side, the fans and even his teammates cheered, applauded, congratulated him and patted him on the back.

“What did I do? What did I do?” Bill asked Red.

Red replied, “Just what we needed. You got us the ball.”

Johnny Most’s voice was so hoarse from shouting about the newest Celtic that he could barely speak. “You’ll have to forgive me for losing my voice,” Johnny croaked. “But I think we just witnessed the birth of a star.”


Last edited by spikeD on Sun Nov 29, 2009 9:24 am; edited 1 time in total

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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by Sam on Wed Nov 25, 2009 12:23 pm

Beautiful. Just beautiful. No response would be adequate.

Sam
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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by NYCelt on Wed Nov 25, 2009 12:53 pm

Spike,

Great post! Thanks!

Regards
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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by gacracker on Wed Nov 25, 2009 2:30 pm

Beautifully done, spike. I was trying to remember if I actually watched this game as I was old enough and we did have a TV by that time.

It did seem awfully familiar, particularly Johnny's quote at the end about witnessing a star in the making. You certainly captured the thrill of watching Russ find his game and assert himself as no one else had done to that point or could thereafter.

Many thanks for your inspiring words.

GC
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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by beat on Wed Nov 25, 2009 2:32 pm

Any doubt about greatness........times 2!
Greatest player and Coach! So different yet so alike!

beat
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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by jeb on Wed Nov 25, 2009 2:47 pm

Spike

Chill bumps. Never got to see him play. Well done.
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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by spikeD on Wed Nov 25, 2009 5:17 pm

Thanks, guys. This is a condensed version of a much longer piece that's about 80% done. I'm going to try to sell it to a magazine. We'll see.

Unfortunately for anyone interested in this subject, there are only a few sources that give accounts of the game and they only tell a small part of the story.

In the longer version of this piece, I'm trying to show how Bill made up for his shortcomings (inability to shoot) by developing a different way of playing basketball in which rebounding and blocking shots were featured. Also, how he overcame adversity and won because of his great heart.

The main problem is source material. Sometimes when you're writing about the Celtics, it feels like you're the first one to even think about it in a certain way.

Take one example: Because there has been so little written about this subject, I still can't say for sure that Bill Russell was the first NBA player to switch off and cover someone else's man. It seems that switching off must have been done previously to Bill's arrival, if only inadvertently, but there doesn't seem to be anyone who did it deliberately and systematically before Bill.

There's a book coming out next May about how Bill revolutionized the game. We may have to wait til then to get answers. Good books on the early days of the NBA are rare. If anyone is aware of any titles of books, please let me know. And yes, I've seen the list on this site and much thanks to Sam and the other guys for compiling and posting it.


Last edited by spikeD on Wed Nov 25, 2009 5:49 pm; edited 1 time in total

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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by jeb on Wed Nov 25, 2009 5:25 pm

Spike

Were you at the game? Did you see it live?
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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by spikeD on Wed Nov 25, 2009 6:01 pm

J

Funny.

Since I don't think Phil Jackson should have a monopoly on the subject, let me say that many Zen masters like to carry around a stick. If they have a student who just doesn't get it, the masters like to whack said student on some part of the body with the stick. They call the practice "direct pointing".

While I'm not an abuser, my personal feeling is that the practice of direct pointing is quite quaint and charming. Therefore, since I'm not where you are right now with my trusty stick, could you please whack yourself on the head for me?

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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by jeb on Wed Nov 25, 2009 6:06 pm

Spike

No thanks. Heads got enough bumps.
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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by spikeD on Wed Nov 25, 2009 6:08 pm

J

Any part of the anatomy will suffice, but spare the family jewels. Although, if you were Phil Jackson, I might reconsider.

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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by jeb on Wed Nov 25, 2009 6:12 pm

What do all those zen dudes have to say about grudges?
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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by spikeD on Wed Nov 25, 2009 6:24 pm

Gratitude is an indispensable emotion. Did I forget to thank you for the 'chill bumps' comment? It's quite expressive and appreciated. The Zen direct pointing crack was my dark humor, the best kind of humor imho.

Know any magazines that might pay for an article like the one posted above only 3 times as long?

Did you notice that Bill Simmons has the NYTimes #1 bestseller, a book about basketball? What's up with that? I mean, Simmons isn't that good.

I happen to think basketball is the greatest sport of all, even better than soccer. It makes a guy who likes to write about basketball (i.e., me) quite intrigued with what kind of market is out there.

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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by jeb on Wed Nov 25, 2009 6:31 pm

happy holidays Spike. Good luck with your article. Nice piece of writing.
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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by beat on Wed Nov 25, 2009 6:35 pm

Hey Spike

Jeb wants to know what it was like coming over on the Mayflower
and how was that first Thanksgiving with the indians.

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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by irishmic on Wed Nov 25, 2009 6:42 pm

spikeD,
Your writing allowed for an exciting tribute to Mr. Russell first Pro game as a Celtic. I could envision every jump/block and smile he experienced against Pettit. I bet the "garden" was wild with Red antics stiring the mix. Thanks again for the topic! Great writing, as you share Celtic Lore.
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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by gacracker on Wed Nov 25, 2009 6:56 pm

spikeD wrote:The Zen direct pointing crack was my dark humor, the best kind of humor imho.

Agreed... dark humor is the very best kind.

We all have a bit of it.

Its what keeps us crackin'.

GC
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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by Sam on Wed Nov 25, 2009 8:56 pm

Spike,

I'm quite sure switching was practiced in the league well before Russ was around. It you have a copy of Red's "Basketball for the Player, the Fan and the Coach," check it for references to switching on defense. I think that book was first printed in 1953. It's in that box of books I'm still trying to find.

Also, if you're going to try to sell the article, you might consider placing additional emphasis on the quality of the crowd roars. They'd start with a rumble of anticipation, at the defining moment, would explode into thunderous peals that definitely could last through entire timeouts. And, after maybe 60 seconds, when it seemed the din was going to wane, it assumed a second life as with a reinforcing tidal wave. And that was with only half to two-thirds of a crowd.

If I had been a small child in those days, I could lay that memory to the magnification that children's senses often entail. But I was 19 when Russ came along, and those stentorian, mostly male roars will forever resonate in the pit of my stomach. I have compared the sensation to that of the tank scene in "Saving Private Ryan." I personally watched the first balcony bounce at least 9 to 12 inches up and down. I've never since heard any sports-related roar like those.

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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by bigpygme on Thu Nov 26, 2009 1:18 pm

great story and really well written, spike. i LOVE this stuff, and you did a superb job ! Wish i could help with suggestions about source material or a publisher, but somehow i feel sure you'll find a way ...

regards,

Michael in Denver
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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by Sam on Thu Nov 26, 2009 1:59 pm

Spike,

Yesterday I took the liberty of mentioning you and your work to a representative of a site called "Celticslife." They're looking for someone to write about the Celtics and seem interested in an individual who has perspectives on the old days. I hope you don't mind that I made the suggestion.

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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by spikeD on Thu Nov 26, 2009 4:42 pm

Sam

Don't mind at all. Thanks muchly. I'm looking these days to supplement my income by writing about the Celtics. Thus the article about Bill that this is condensed from. I checked out Celticslife. Interesting. There seem to be a few such sites.

If you combine the growing wave of Celtics blogging, which we're seeing, with things like the popularity of Bill Simmons book, maybe I'm wrong, but I think it's because basketball itself is such a fascinating and compelling game.

As a writer you look for fine and noble things to write about. When I realized that there were all these incredible stories from Basketball Camelot that nobody ever bothered to tell, well, I'm still fascinated, can't wait to turn over the next stone.

Regarding books, of course one of the books I was hoping to borrow was Red's "Basketball for the Player, the Fan and the Coach." I haven't found a library that has it and it costs around $250 on amazon.com. This is another example of what I'm saying about source material being difficult to come by.

Regarding roars, didn't you coin the phrase "stentorian cacophony" about the Gahd'n? I hated using the adjective 'thunderous' but couldn't think of anything else. 'Hungry roar' sounded like a roar I've heard at the Gahd'n, although I can't remember when. I wish I had been at the game. I can't imagine the excitement. I wish I could find Cousy's quote to the papers after the game. He was excited.

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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by LACELTFAN on Thu Nov 26, 2009 6:07 pm

Thanks Spike...another great thread. Don't know if you know about it already or are interested, but a little while back redsarmy.com was looking for someone to write for them. LACELTFAN
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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by spikeD on Thu Nov 26, 2009 7:21 pm

LACELTFAN

Thanks. I didn't see anything on Redsarmy except they think they have the best Celtics board. Geez, I didn't even know there was a competition.

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Re: Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic

Post by LACELTFAN on Fri Nov 27, 2009 2:35 am

spikeD wrote:LACELTFAN

Thanks. I didn't see anything on Redsarmy except they think they have the best Celtics board. Geez, I didn't even know there was a competition.
Spike- I go there now and then...It's not bad but it's not the best, for one thing they don't have the kind of threads that you put together...You've done some great ones....but you would get some exposure writing for them, not sure if it's what you want but it was about 2 weeks ago, they were advertising for a writer...I think it even paid a little...Don't know if it is still available cause it's not my thing...anyway....happy thanksgiving and thanks again for the nice post.
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