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Bill Russell
Bill Russell
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Bill Russell Interview (page: 2 / 8)

Cornerstone of the Boston Celtics' Dynasty

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  Bill Russell

It's so revealing to read some of the material that you yourself have written about the game of basketball. From the outside it looks like just sheer talent and athleticism, but in your book, Russell Rules, you talk about it very analytically, studying other player's moves. You almost looked at it as a science.

Bill Russell: My coach and I -- I call Red Auerbach "my coach" -- his background was math. We used to talk all the time about the game and life and things, but mostly equations. When you think about the game of basketball, it's played in a cube. There are boundaries: floor and ceiling, left, right, back and forth. And the other confinement is time. So what you do within those boundaries with the allotted amount of time is where the game is. And first of all, I never approached the game with a preconceived notion. Now there may be some things I learned, but I wouldn't take anybody's word for it. They'd say, "He's gonna do this." I could not take anybody's word for that, because first of all in that level there are no "one size fits all" and there's no silver bullet. And so in college I was -- mostly I was self taught, basically. One time I was playing a game against Stanford and one of their guards stole the ball and started down to shoot a lay-up. And I was the only one who could catch him. I was the only one in the building that knew that! So I was behind him, and after I was sure that I could catch him -- he's going down the right side -- I took a giant step to the left, and then continued. And the reason I took it to the left, if I went right behind him and blocked the shot I'd probably hit him and that's a foul and there's no accomplishment. But if I took a step to the left when I got to him, there was an angle, so I had a choice to either go in front or behind. And I got there, I knocked the ball into the backboard and then he got the rebound and went back the other way. And I got to know him after we got to playing, and he said he never figured out where I came from, but it was actually quite routine.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

That's geometry, isn't it?

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell: Yes, yes. But you see the thing is, is that in approaching athletes especially, that's something I know about. You could never dissect a player into parts. Each player is a package. You can't say, "If he did this..." or "If he thought..." or "If he didn't think..." or "If he tried this..." Invalid and irrelevant! What you got is what you got. There are certain things that you have to know to be an outstanding athlete in any sport. There's offense and defense and there are things that you can do as an individual to impact the game without having your hand or your foot on the ball.

I used to break it down. There are 48 minutes in a game. It takes a second -- a second-and-a-half, maybe two seconds -- for a three point shot. And if you add up all the shots taken in a game -- free throws don't count because the clock stops -- but if you take all the seconds added up shooting and rebounding it comes to about three minutes. Now out of a 48-minute game three minutes are concerned with shooting and rebounding. What is going on the other 45 minutes?


Bill Russell: A whole bunch of things! Some of the time you're working your offense. Every play, there is an assignment for every player on the floor. So there are five parts. How well you do your place -- where you're nowhere close to the ball or a shot -- and if you do your job correctly, that makes it an easy shot.When you're freelancing, how well do you set picks? How well do you pass the ball so that the receiver cannot only catch it but can do something with it?

You throw it in a particular way so they can throw it right up.

Bill Russell: I played with a guy (Tom Sanders) that wore contact lenses. Okay? His field of vision was like this. Anything outside of that circle he could not see. He just could not see it. If you passed the ball right here he could not see it. Well, I would consider it a bad pass if I threw a pass around his knees. I would not grumble and say, "He should have caught that." That's not true. So when I passed to him I tried to make sure that the pass arrived up here where he could catch it, and with the velocity. If the ball is going to come out of nowhere right to here, well, if it's too hard he can't catch it. It's not saying he has bad hands. That's a bad pass. Well, to be able to acknowledge that you are the one that made the mistake... and you might want to talk to him about passes, so that he can first of all give you a good target and be ready to catch it and ready to do something with it after he caught it. These are little things that not a lot of attention is paid to. One thing that my coach did was he did a remarkable job of contingencies, so that whatever comes up, his goal was no surprises. Especially when the game comes down to the last minute -- although sometimes that's not the key part of the game, a lot of people think that (it's) the last three minutes. The game may be won in the first quarter, because I know we used to talk sometimes, and he'd say, "Basically, you only have to outplay the other team three minutes out of 48. If you outplay them those three minutes and play even the rest of the time, you win the game."

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Do you mean get ahead at the beginning?

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell: Not necessarily. You might be behind, and in these three minutes you might catch up. But these are the three that determine basically the whole outcome. So he said to me sometimes, "This is the time we need to do it, when you lock them down for three minutes and execute our offense. And if that's not working, then we should go to the basket to get pretty close on lay-ups." Fortunately we had players that could do that. So all we had to do was set the stage for them, put them in a place where they could do their best. But make sure that they only did one shot, and hopefully that's not a good shot, and if they miss: no offensive rebounds. That's a no-no! Now if you're there for three minutes, if we do it correctly, we will take the heart out of them. It may not manifest itself right then, but after we've taken their heart, it may take in the last quarter if they are afraid.

Didn't Red Auerbach say something about getting five baskets down, or three baskets?

Bill Russell: Sometimes he worked psychologically. That's the other thing. He was very, very good psychologically. Sometimes it would be better to get behind. The reason for that is when you get behind, you can get your players to listen to you and the adjustments that you have to make. If you're ahead it's hard to get them to listen. We like to call it "human nature," but we just call it "Not all that bright!"

There are times when the coach has to get the players to listen. That is the hardest thing, because every player comes there, first of all has a massive ego by the time he gets to that level, because he's been good enough to get there and he's comfortable with what it took to get there. Now what you have to do is -- after you get him there with all that talent -- is to get him to try to improve. Never try to take anything away from his game, but add to his game. But you got to have -- our coach used to get us invested in what he was trying to do. So he'd always be asking us something. You know, before the game he'd say, "What do you think?" He'd ask three or four of us, "What do you think?" And then he would go through the process of pretending he was thinking about what we said! And he'd say, "Well okay, if you think that way, this is what we're going to do." Most of the time he already knew what he needed to do, but he had to get us invested in it, because once we were invested in it we'd do it much better.

And at the time you definitely believed he was listening to you and what you said?

Bill Russell: Oh yeah, he was listening. Of course sometimes he acted on that. You could see him acting on what you told him. A lot of times one of those guys would say, "The guy that's guarding me cannot guard me, because he can't do it. I can take him any time I want." Well, our reputation was that if we ran a play and it worked, we might run it ten straight times. His theory on that is, "If I run a play that works, and I run it again and it works, and I run it again and it works, if that coach doesn't make any adjustments, okay. As long as it works I'll keep doing it. I'm not going to do his job by stopping doing that play. His job is to counter. If he doesn't know how or has not enough head to counter it, then that's his problem."

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This page last revised on Sep 02, 2008 12:55 EDT
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