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The year before I came into the NBA, Neil Johnston was third in the league in scoring, and I was worried about him from the start. I wasn't worried about his shooting; Neil had a low-trajectory, soft little hook, and I figured I could block nine out of 10 of them. But this created a new problem for me. If I did block them Neil would surely change his style against me and come up with something I probably couldn't handle as easily. So I took the psychological route. I would let him alone just enough to keep him puzzled; block just enough so that he wouldn't get riled and try something new. I would keep a little mental boxscore and make sure the score came out in our favor. Or try, anyway.
In our senior years as pros, the Celtics have learned all the little tricks and all about each other. I have learned, for example, that K.C. Jones does not have a bagful of defensive moves. He has a whole truckload of defensive moves. He will pester a guy so much that the guy will start to look for K.C. even when he's not there. So help me, I have seen this happen: some pro who has been dogged by K.C. all night will suddenly get hard-nosed about it. "Well, by damn, I'll show him" this guy will say to himself. I mean, everybody has got his pride, right? So here is this fellow, and he's going to prove to the world that he can bring the ball up the floor against the mighty K.C. Jones. And here he comes, flashing and ducking and dancing and dodging, dribbling up a storm and dazzling everybody with his cross-handing. The crowd is cheering wildly. Hoo Ray. But the only thing is that the other four members of his team are standing around doing nothing and we—the Celtics—are just waiting for the show to end. We are all breathing easily—we rest during these little demonstrations, you know—ready to bring down the curtain by stuffing the ball down his proud little throat. It's that old routine about getting them mad.
One of my jobs is to be steerer for our team. This is a lot like the guy standing outside the sideshow tent steering people in to see the dancing girls. With the exception of a few superstars—those sneaks—I can steer most everybody in this league. Say they're rolling in toward me, and I want them to go to their right. First, I've got to get them thinking instead of playing naturally. I fake directly toward them with my head, and with my left arm extended—pointed straight toward their chest—and my weight on my left foot. This is not exactly the prettiest posture in all the world, and immediately they think, "Ah hah. Russell has his weight on the wrong foot." And, sure enough, they swerve right every time to go around me.
Now. I can whirl completely around quickly enough off the left foot (which turns out to be the right, or correct, foot after all), plant all my weight on my right foot, leap up, and when I'm at the peak of my jump, guess who has just shot—if my timing is correct. If I want them to move left, I swing my left arm over a little more to their right. You follow me here? I have very long arms, and they have got to move left.
There are exceptions all over the place, of course. Oscar Robertson for one. He won't move where I want him to. He takes one quick look at those long arms and he figures, "Now, now. He wants me to do something." So he stops short and shoots me to death from outside. Elgin Baylor is as bad. Sometimes worse.
Everybody in the league knows that Baylor—otherwise the complete player—can't move too well to his left. But in one moment of desperation in one of the playoffs I gave up trying to steer him left, and I let him come right. At the last minute I took one giant step sideways, and he ran smack into me and drew a foul for charging. I mean, it ain't exactly psychological, but you do what you can.
Now that you're full of psychological steam, you're ready to handicap the NBA this season. You probably figure right away that this is the year the Celtics will lose, because we are getting older and we tire more easily. Right?
So who needs to get tired? To play a game 48 minutes without falling over dead, I cut down the size of the court like an old boxer cuts down the size of the ring. I cut down my ring by staying out of the corners. What do I want with the corners, anyway? Willie Naulls is the last of the great red-hot corner shooters, and Willie is on my team, remember? I cut out the half-court corners, too, for a total of eight places I never go anymore. (Well, almost never. Don't go believing this too much or you've had it again.)
I'm starting a new, three-year contract and my 10th year in pro basketball—at age 31. Not long ago The Christian Science Monitor said that Bill Russell would be the next coach of the Boston Celtics. Well, maybe I could have the job if I wanted it when I'm through playing. But what have I got to gain from being a coach? I've got everything to lose. I'm like a gunfighter with a reputation. I've won a few showdowns at the tennis-shoe corral and everybody wants to try me. The team is in the same position. We used to have traditional rivals but, now that the Celtics have beaten everybody, everybody is our traditional rival. Everybody gets up for us, and sometimes when we come out on the floor we can feel the tension crackle.
A lot has been printed about how I tense up before every game. You know—get moody and throw up. Well, maybe I don't get up as high for the games now as I used to get. Now I just throw up for playoffs. Instead there are times, when I'm feeling especially moody, when I sit there on the training table and sort of dream. Trainer Buddy LeRoux is winding tape around my ankles, and I close my eyes and feel just like a gladiator. I promise you, I know deep inside, behind my ribs, just exactly how the old-time Roman gladiators must have felt in those tight moments before they went out there into the arena.