Watching highlights of Bill Russell in the early 60s is a trip. It’s like time-travelling to basketball’s beta stage. The court, still lacking the three-point line, appears as though it’s still buffering. All of the player movements seem basic and raw, as if someone handed them a manual and said, “This is how you pass, this is how you score, and this is how you defend.”
All of the player movements, except Bill Russell’s.
As a lanky but athletic 6-foot-10 big man, Russell looked like a glitch in the Matrix each time he skied high for a block or snatched a rebound. When wayward balls clanked off the rim, they always seemed to find their way into the pre-programmed hands of Russell, who was always in the correct coordinates under the basket. He was clearly ahead of his time. A revolutionary of the game.
Russell mastered the art of knowing where he exactly needed to be at exactly the right time, which allowed him to average more than 20 rebounds per game in consecutive seasons. If the nightmare in today’s game is looking behind to see LeBron James steamrolling for a chase-down block, the horrors of the 60s was seeing Russell pull down—over and over again, in an effortless routine—thousands of missed shots.
Russell averaged 15 points and close to 23 rebounds per game in his 13 seasons as a pro, which lands him in the seventh spot of SLAM’s Top 100 Players of All-Time. The players in this very elite list, just like Russell, have all the historic stats to back them up. But more than crazy numbers, being named in the exclusive group of special players require the moments when they transcend being good and rise to greatness.
For Russell, that moment came in Game 7 of the 1962 Finals where his Boston Celtics faced their rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Defending home court and chasing history in an overtime game, Russell spent all 53 minutes scoring lay-ups and grabbing rebounds. By the time the game ball finally stopped rolling in Russell’s fingertips, the Boston big man’s stat line looked like this: 30 points and 40 rebounds. Reading it out loud sounds ridiculous, but that’s exactly how Russell played during his era. There was no holding him down them, not the Lakers, not Jerry West, not Wilt Chamberlain, not Elgin Baylor. And there’s no holding him down now, not even by the new generation of NBA greats. Bill Russell, the legend they named the Finals MVP award after, has kept the old man swag intact. That’s easy to do of course if you have an unmatched 11 championship rings.
Russell would’ve only had 10 if not for that close call in 1962. With 5 seconds left, Game 7 tied at 100, the Lakers’ Frank Selvy took an 18-foot jumper from the left side of the Boston Garden. Selvy missed what could’ve been the championship-winning shot.
Guess who grabbed the championship-saving rebound.
Bill Russell. The 7th greatest player of all-time.
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