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Mailbag: A conversation with Bill Russell

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Posted: Monday May 10, 1999 03:42 PM

  Michael O'Neill

Sports Illustrated In this week's issue, Sports Illustrated launches its year-long series on the 20th century with a cover story on Bill Russell, whom the magazine calls the greatest team player on the greatest team ever.

On Wednesday, as part of an exclusive interview with CNN/SI, Russell answered selected questions from Web users. Check out our conversation with Russell, as well as SI's ranking of the 20 greatest dynasties of the century.

CNN/SI: Kevin Donner from Livingston, N.J., asks: "How different would your career be if you were playing today? And do you think the term "dynasty" as it applied to your Celtics can exist in the NBA today?"

Bill Russell: I'd be making a lot more money! [Laughs.] I don't think it would be that much different.

CNN/SI: What about a dynasty? Would you be able to sustain it?

Russell: Yes. Because what you do is, you get a core group, which we did, and there's enough money under the cap to put a group like that together and keep them. What you have to do is factor into the decision of how you build the team the cost and the limits of what you can do.

CNN/SI: Timmy O'Neill from Redmond, Ore., says: "I took up the thinking that you were the best basketball player ever in the the '60s. I am still of that opinion, but got the impression last year that you had decided Michael Jordan had surpassed you. Do you actually think this, and if so, why?"

Russell: I don't ever recall saying that! [Laughs.] When it comes to rating basketball players, I never put myself into that mix, ever -- I never have. And the reason for that is I decided early in my career the only really important thing is to win the games. I wanted my career to be such that people would say, He won championships, and that's a historical fact, that's not anyone's opinion. I think Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan -- all these guys, I call it a tie, in that there's no one any better than these guys, and all these guys were as good as anyone could be. Because you can't say -- or at least I wouldn't say -- that one guy's better. The only way you can make any kind of judgment is how much they dominate their contemporaries.

CNN/SI: Buck Buchanan from Dublin, Calif., asks: "What do you think can be done to instill a sense of honor, pride, professionalism, loyalty, civic responsibility, leadership and the ability to be a role model to the thousands of young children who look up to today's players?"

Russell: I, for one, don't like the term role model at all. The reason I say that is, for myself, I never considered myself a role model, period. What I did was, I was a man who played basketball as well as he could. And I was never, ever contemplating trying to qualify for sainthood. If there's such a thing as a role model, it has to come from the people the kids are in day-to-day contact with -- their family, their teachers, their counselors, their friends. Because I can play basketball doesn't mean anything else. It doesn't mean I'm a good person or a bad person. It doesn't mean I'm bright. it doesn't mean I'm dumb. It doesn't mean anything. It just means that I could play basketball pretty good. The only thing that I did is that I got a great amount of notoriety playing basketball, but it was only because I was very good at it, and I worked at it, and I was always trying to find out how good I could be. And when that started to diminish as an incentive, that's when I left.

CNN/SI: What about the kids who do look up to athletes, or the inner-city kids who look to sports as their only way out?

Russell: First of all, only way out is a phrase that did not come from the inner city. And I'm not so sure how many kids actually look to the athletes as role models. Like the kids that wear Michael Jordan sneakers -- that's more of a fashion statement. [Laughs.] At least that's the way I see it. But being a role model is an assignment that someone other than yourself tries to put on you -- OK, you're a role model. And if you're a role model, these are the things you should be doing. I decided you're a role model, and now these are the things that you should be doing because I decided you're a role model. Well, that's a crock. Dennis Rodman -- everybody likes to talk about him in a negative fashion. Dennis Rodman is show business. We've taken the game, and a great part of the game now is more show business than competition. And he's an extreme example of that, but part of it. Like last year when they won a championship, a lot of the other coaches and a lot of fans were saying, I don't care -- I wouldn't have him on my team. But Phil Jackson said, I'll have him on my team, and we'll win a championship. [Laughs.] And we're supposed to be playing to win.

CNN/SI: Joseph Acuna from Vancouver, B.C., says: "It seems NBA scoring averages are consistently dropping every year. Is this due to teams playing better defense or is there simply a lack of good offensive players?"

Russell: I think mostly it's the zone defenses, so that guys that can't play defense can be relatively effective. But it makes for dull basketball! [Laughs.]

CNN/SI: As someone who was known for his defense, what do you make of today's game? Do you really find it dull?

Russell: There's some flashes of brilliance every now and then, which keeps it from getting dull. Some players can get past the mundane issues that dominate the game.

CNN/SI: Bill Carr from Buffalo, N.Y., asks: "If you could change one aspect of the game, what would it be?"

Russell: I'd make the shorts shorter! [Laughs.] I'd try to see if we could get them back to playing more man-to-man defense. There are maybe half a dozen good centers in the league. But they'll play each other and won't guard each other. When Wilt [Chamberlain] was young, if they'd have told him he couldn't guard me, they probably would've had to arrest him for assault! [Laughs.] To his coach!

CNN/SI: So for you it was a matter of pride to match up with the best.

Russell: Uh-huh. In fact, Red [Auerbach] never scouted that much, because he said, I don't give a care what they're going to do; I know what we're going to do. That's imposing your will on the game and deciding the pace of the game and how the game's going to be played.

CNN/SI: Matt Slavik from Menlo Park, Calif., says: "I'm curious about what qualities you admire most in other players, and who best exemplifies these qualities."

Russell: To watch skilled players use their skills to help their teams win.

CNN/SI: It's all about winning?

Russell: Oh yeah. That's why they keep score. If it wasn't about that, you could substitute ballet for basketball, because there's no goal -- you're just making the moves.

CNN/SI: What players do you like to watch?

Russell: Of the centers, I like Alonzo [Mourning], and the kid from San Antonio, [Tim] Duncan, and I like Shaq [O'Neal]. Let's say those three guys: They're so, so different -- playing the same position -- that it's interesting to me to watch. Their talents are different but they play the same position. And to watch the differences and to see how they execute for their teams, I find that fascinating.

CNN/SI: Do you watch other positions?

Russell: Today, Utah is the only team that's dominated by a forward, Karl Malone. Kevin Garnett -- I like to watch him because of his youthful enthusiasm. He loves to play. And to watch that and to see someone that's having a good time, for me that's the thing. And I watch the little guards. [Laugh.] You know, there's only one thing worse than a guard -- a backup guard! [Laughs.] There's a nice crew of young guards -- [Allen] Iverson, of course, [Stephon] Marbury, the young kid from Toronto, [Vince] Carter, then you got the kid in Sacramento [Jason Williams], then you got the two Hardaways [Tim and Penny]. So you got some very talented young guards that are interesting to watch.

CNN/SI: Getting back to Shaq, several users noted that you have praised his game and wondered what you make of all the criticism that follows him around: that he can't shoot free throws, that he doesn't win, that he's not focused enough on the game ...

Russell: Like I say, I think he's very good, to start with. There is no prototype for a good player, at his position. What his talent is, he uses it quite well. Here's what I mean: They'll take a stat and say, As long as he's doing this, he's not a great player. So you go back 10, 12 years, Magic Johnson was at his heyday, and their marketing gimmick was his triple-doubles. This is the standard. And they still talk about guys' double-doubles now. It's starting to sound like baseball, with all the stats! [Laughs.] So now you can say the standard for a guard is the triple-double. Last year, the No. 1 guard in the league, Michael Jordan, I think he had one triple-double. So then that stat doesn't hold up, does it? So when a guy starts to tell me about these numbers, I know right away he doesn't know what he's talking about. Because every player develops his own key stats. His stats will determine how well he's playing, but his key stats may not compare to the guy before or anybody else.

Like when I was playing, one of the stats that no one talked about is that I averaged about five assists a game. But the offense was not centered around me; offensively, I was not what you'd call a dominant center. I could play high post and low post -- from the high post I did passing, from the low post I did shooting. And so a guy will develop his own stats as his career goes. Basically to me two things have happened: First, people try to predict who's going to win. So much so now that it becomes bigger than the game. I always liked to wait and watch the game! [Laughs.]

CNN/SI: What about the criticism that Shaq's teams don't win?

Russell: You know they [the Orlando Magic] did go -- although they got swept -- to the Finals. To me, it is not a bad year if you're in the Finals. I was almost appalled by the way they talked about the Buffalo Bills losing four straight Super Bowls. Getting into four straight Super Bowls itself is quite an accomplishment. That's like a writer saying you're not a good writer unless you win a Pulitzer. So if you write for 10 years and don't ever get a Pulitzer, you're a loser? That dog won't hunt. [Laughs.]

CNN/SI: Joe Swadel of Salem, N.H., says: "Larry Bird called Dennis Johnson the best teammate he played with because of his ability to come through in the clutch. Who do you consider your best teammate?"

Russell: I can't say. I'll borrow a page from Johnny Wooden -- when they asked him about great players, he said he would never name any of his players. Because to pick one over the other, he didn't want to do that. 'Cause I had quite a few guys that were great.

CNN/SI: Ryan Wolfort of New Orleans asks: "What do you think of the new-age Celtics and their coach, Rick Pitino?"

Russell: They're having a difficult time, of course. That happens. Their greatest ally is patience; they're a young team -- they may be the youngest team in the league, or close to it. The only question I have is, as they grow, which way will they grow? Will they grow together or will they grow apart? If they grow together then they can be a good team. But you can't tell. There's no way to predict. That's what makes sports so great to me, is the unknown factors, the things you cannot know. For example, when I was playing, I expected us to win, but I did not have any idea how, or how much, or what. And for people to be able to predict who's going to win, I don't know where they get it. On that note, my last year with the Celtics, when the playoffs started, the oddsmakers in Vegas made us 200-1. Sometimes you'll say, Well that team's not that good. The fact that they keep winning really has nothing to do with it. Red used to say, No championships are ever won during the offseason; championships are won when the games are played.

CNN/SI: Bruce Boccardy from Boston says: "In the late '50s, you spoke at an event in my hometown of Athol, Mass. Though you were extremely entertaining, as a little white kid I could not understand your exterior resentful demeanor. I now know the humiliation and cruelty that was visited upon you in various racist forms while in Boston. Looking back, do you think that your approach to the institutional and personal racism that you encountered was the most productive way, and how would you approach it today?"

Russell: Well, there was never any humiliation; I'd never let anybody do that to me. I am 100 percent sure I did things the correct way. People will observe and say, Well, there's a better way. And most of the time they don't know what they're talking about; they haven't been trying. And there's no such thing as a better way. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and I said, You know, I've passed 65. In all those years, including twins and triplets, I've never met two people that were alike. [Laughs.] For example, people will say, a little cliché we all like to use, We're all unique in the universe, and then we turn right around and put somebody in a category! And you say, if you give it a little thought, isn't it contradictory?

CNN/SI: So you're saying, how you handled it worked for you.

Russell: Yeah. For my life experiences, for my intelligence or lack of, the things that I did for me, that was the best and only way to do what I did. And I don't brag or apologize. That's it. It's neither good nor bad; it's different.

Related information
SI's Favorite Dynasties
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