Pat Bigold

The Way I See It

By Pat Bigold

Tuesday, May 18, 1999

Nobody knew
Russell like K.C.

WHEN the May 10 issue of Sports Illustrated showed up in my mail box, there he was staring out at me with the same dispassionately commanding expression he wore on the parquet floor for most of two decades.

Bill Russell, looking like the nastiest, no-nonsense grandpa I've ever seen. There was snow on the mane, moustache, and beard but plenty of fire still in the glare.

The 65-year-old Russell was being profiled as the leader of the century's No. 1 sports dynasty: the 1957-1969 Boston Celtics. Not much room for debate there. Eleven NBA titles in 13 years kind of clinches it, don't you think?

But the debate about Russell's personality was refueled by Frank Deford's 10-page SI feature on the enigmatic legend, and it stirred my memories.

I grew up north of Boston, reading about Russell, listening to the biased play-by-play radio accounts of Johnny Most, and catching the goateed center's act on black and white TV.

I recall that he was the last athlete I ever asked for an autograph. That was in the summer of 1969 outside the Mission Hill Church gym in Roxbury, when Russell emerged from a team practice and blew by me like I wasn't there.

Thinking back on that experience, I decided to check in on the athlete, who in 1961, became the first player to ever give me an autograph: K.C. Jones.

The Hall of Fame ballhawking guard who won NBA titles in each of his first eight years playing in the league is now 68, retired and living in Connecticut. Having been with Russell on back-to-back NCAA champions (1955, 1956) at San Francisco and the 1956 U.S. Olympic gold medal team (Melbourne) before joining the Celtics, he knows the man better than most people alive. And he understands him.

Jones remembered St. Louis Hawks star Bob Pettit asking Russell for his autograph on a plane en route to an all-star game in Eastern Europe.

"Pettit kept trying to get it, but he couldn't," said Jones.

But Jones said Russell's warmth as a team leader helped make the Celtics a family during the glory years.

"He never criticized any of us," said Jones. That should surprise people who saw only the cold public side of Russell.

JONES said that the fabled Celtics were not as talented as some other teams in the NBA at the time. That goes for Russell, too, who was not highly regarded by most teams in the 1956 draft.

"Our foundation was defense, hustle and (attention to) details," said Jones. "Russell was the hardest worker."

Jones said he still marvels at how Russell would chase a point guard on the fast break to try to knock the ball away from behind.

His shot blocking was phenomenal, and it was clean. He would lure opponents into attempting layups by not moving from the other side of the basket until they left their feet.

"Then he'd block the shot," said Jones, who said that Hakeem Olajuwon comes closest these days to emulating Russell defensively.

He said "intelligence" was the real key to Russell's dominance, even against the towering Wilt Chamberlain.

"The game is 80 percent intelligence and 20 percent talent," said Jones.

He said Russell was not offensively talented. His passing was just fundamental.

"But he was creative," said Jones.

Jones said he didn't see the SI issue that ranked the Boston dynasty No. 1 but he thinks the editors made a wise choice.

And I agree.

Pat Bigold has covered sports for daily newspapers
in Hawaii and Massachusetts since 1978.

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