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Possibly the most important fundamental in the training of a basketball team is in goal shooting, for the winning of a game depends on this. Goal shooting is to basketball what putting is to golf.
Virtually no one with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the game of basketball is prepared to argue this point with Kentucky's Coach Rupp. Basketball is a shooting game and the requirement for victory is an ability to shoot more goals and score more points than the other team. Yet for almost a year college basketball has been dominated as never before by a man who, basically, cannot shoot. His name is Bill Russell and if he ever learns to hit the basket someone is going to have to revise the rules.
From the moment, as an almost unknown junior, Russell began to lead the University of San Francisco into national prominence last season, people have been writing and talking about this amazing string bean and his phenomenal feats. From the West Coast the word filtered across the mountains early last year that here was a basketball "find," one of the real giants of the game; by March, when the Dons beat Tom Gola and La Salle for the NCAA championship at Kansas City, Bill Russell was accepted nearly everywhere as the best college basketball player in the nation.
There remained, however, a hard core of nonbelievers; or, if not nonbelievers, at least a group willing to be convinced but determined to first see with their own eyes and then pass judgment for themselves: the aficionados of Madison Square Garden who, through the years, have watched men like Luisetti and Mikan and Cousy and Macauley and Gola perform their magic and are seldom convinced by mere words alone. So last week, as Coach Phil Woolpert of San Francisco brought the nation's No. 1 team—and No. 1 player—into New York for the annual Holiday Festival Tournament, the crowds packed the big sports arena from the sidelines to the ceiling (once equaling the maximum attendance figure of 18,500) to see for themselves.
At first they greeted Russell with a stubborn silence. Then, when he failed to shoot like a Carl Braun or dribble like a Bob Cousy or feed like a Dick McGuire, their silence changed to hoots and jeers for this big shuffling man who was so evidently not the complete basketball player. On offense he ambled lazily to a spot near the free-throw lane, almost reluctantly took passes from his teammates and quickly shoveled the ball away to someone else. And finally, when his guard strayed away to ponder from a distance the incongruity of this All-America who wouldn't shoot, Russell did begin to shoot from a distance of a dozen feet—and missed badly, not once, not twice, but three straight times, easy little shots that any good basketball player could sink with his eyes shut tight. What then, asked the crowd, can he do?
Russell showed them—and convinced them there are other skills to the game of basketball than dribbling or passing or even shooting. As the tournament progressed and San Francisco moved steadily ahead into the finals, the looks of doubt and derision changed into looks of incredulity and awe. For the things which Russell can do he does superlatively well, perhaps better than anyone in college basketball has ever done them before. All the words they had read had not really prepared the crowd for Bill Russell.
Physically he is 6 feet 10 inches tall, has such amazing spring that he high jumps over 6 feet 7 without undue exertion (or soars so high after a rebound his head is above the basket) and has the speed to run the quarter-mile in 49.6 seconds (or cover a court like a late-evening shadow). His arms are tremendously long, even for a man of such height, and attached thereto are hands which curl around a basketball rather as a small boy grasps a large apple. Moreover, he has the reactions of a featherweight fighter—quickness and timing—and great competitive spirit beneath an almost phlegmatic exterior.
But these are only words, too, and to the basketball fan who must see for himself they mean next to nothing. What the Garden crowds saw was a player who could drop off his man on one side of the court, take two immense strides and shoot into the air like a rocket to block a shot thrown up by an opposing forward flashing in unguarded from the opposite side of the court. They saw a player who could come down with 62 rebounds against magnificent athletes like 6-foot 7-inch Tom Heinsohn of Holy Cross and 6-foot 5-inch Willie Naulls of UCLA. A player who went up, time and again, to pluck a wild shot by a teammate from the backboard and cram it down through the basket while friend and foe alike watched helplessly far below. A player who (although he couldn't hit from outside) was deadly on soft little hook shots right under the basket; who made it the height of absurdity for an opponent to try to pass through the middle area he was guarding; who batted so many seemingly sure shots away from the basket it was discouraging (and psychologically unnerving) to anyone with his hand on the ball and a goal-shooting gleam in his eye.
Without Russell, San Francisco's 33-game victory streak would never have survived the first round of the Garden tournament. The Dons trailed La Salle until the big fellow began to wage a one-man war under the basket, finally emerging with 22 rebounds, 26 points and a fistful of blocked shots to his credit. San Francisco won 79-62. Against Holy Cross in the semifinals Russell outplayed Heinsohn in one of the stirring man-to-man duels of Garden basketball history. In the opener against Syracuse, Heinsohn had scored 36 points; Russell stopped him with 12 (all on long shots from outside), scored 24 himself, had 22 rebounds and batted away half a dozen shots. San Francisco won 67-51.
In the finals, a backyard California brawl transported 3,000 miles for the occasion, his teammates virtually gave Russell a night off in appreciation of earlier efforts in their behalf. K. C. Jones and the rest of the San Francisco lineup ran rings around UCLA, out-shot the Bruins, outrebounded them, forced them into errors with a defense so tight it was frustrating and won by 70-53. Russell, under no pressure to come through with another big performance, took things easy. Even so he seized 18 rebounds, scored 17 points and earned an overwhelming vote as the tournament's outstanding player over such competition as Heinsohn, Naulls and Duquesne's Sihugo Green, an All-America who tied the tournament record with 39 points against Fordham.