[h3]If Dwight Howard is a $100 Million Dollar Man, How Much Would Bill Russell Be Worth if He Played Today?[/h3]
I’m not mad at Jeremy Lin or Dwight Howard for the financial frenzy they’re creating this offseason. It’s not necessary to have read and studied the concepts of the great economists like John Maynard Keynes or Alfred Marshall to understand the simple concept of supply and demand.
In the current basketball economic system, today’s players receive what they’re worth, because to market forces dictate what they earn. If someone’s willing to pay Howard and Lin the equivalent of the entire Gross Domestic Product of the Falkland Islands, well by golly, hooray for them.
Dwight Howard is the best big man in the game today, despite still being an offensive work in progress. On the defensive end, he’s wondrous and can instantaneously transform a very good team into a championship contender.
But let’s be real people. At this point, he’s not even in the neighborhood of guys like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Shaq, Moses Malone and Hakeem when the discussion of the great big men surfaces.
That leads me to ponder a simple question. In today’s NBA, what would the great Bill Russell, the greatest center to ever play, be worth?
Rare is the man that can revolutionize the way the game is played, singlehandedly initiating a paradigm shift in thought, strategy, preparation and execution. William Felton Russell was one such man, the greatest defensive force the world has ever seen.
Able to dominate the game like no other post player before or since, Bill Russell transformed the conceptual framework of man-to-man defense and the mysterious propensity of blocking shots with alarming regularity into priceless art. Utilizing his uncommon instincts and intimidating defensive acumen, Russell accomplished astonishing team and individual feats that ultimately led to his universal recognition as the game’s greatest winner. EVER!!!
He accrued championships in the same startling manner as Toni Braxton’s 2001 Grammy dress, or Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino’s stunning performances in The Godfather.
But his voyage toward the zenith of the basketball mountaintop began with no hint of his monstrous future impact in the world of sport. Russell was born in Monroe, Louisiana in 1934, in a time and place whose confluence exposed the worst of America’s unique, ugly idiosyncrasies.
His father once had a shotgun aimed at his face for having the audacity to pull up to a gas station in Louisiana. The pervasive, suffocating racism, and frequent terrifying altercations with ignorance, led his father to uproot the household for a move to Detroit. After a brief stay there, the family relocated to Oakland, California.
Russell’s mother passed away when he was twelve years old. He found solace in the public library, spending countless hours digesting books on philosophy, art and history. As a child and teen, he frequented the outdoor basketball courts of Oakland with his older brother Charlie.
Russell was, by most accounts, rather unremarkable and clumsy when he first began to play.
“I had to leave them alone a lot,” Russell’s father Charles said in Joe Barber-Starkey and James W. Johnson’s book The Dandy Dons. “But they never got into trouble. They were always at the playgrounds instead of running the streets.”
Early on, Russell existed in the shadows of Charlie, who was a talented athlete at Oakland Technical High School. When Bill tried out for the basketball team at McClymonds High as a freshman, the 6′2″, 128 pound amalgamation of skin and bones was cut. He also got cut from the football and cheerleading squads.
As a sophomore, he was the 16th man on a 15-man squad. He shared a uniform with another student as they took turns dressing for alternate games. His coach, George Powles, saw a diamond in the rough and encouraged the gangly teen, even paying for his local membership to the Boys Club. Russell could run and jump, but seemed lost on the court whenever the ball touched his hands.
At places like DeFremery Park and the Boys Club, Russell often played upwards of six hours a day. One of his running buddies and high school teammates was a future Baltimore Orioles legend and baseball Hall of Famer named Frank Robinson.
Russell gradually improved as McClymonds won the Oakland Athletic league championship during his last two years. But he was firmly affixed to the bench during his junior year.
He was often on the receiving end of cackling chants and howling, derisive laughter whenever he entered the game. Russell did not even earn an honorable mention on the all-league team as a senior. He was still relatively mediocre, yet stood 6-foot-6.
While his body conspired against him, his mind was the first weapon that he harnessed. Russell fell in love with the game and read everything related to hoops he could get his hands on.
“I had stacks and stacks of magazines,” Russell said in The Dandy Dons. “I studied what players said, learned their idiosyncrasies and I remembered all of them.”
University of San Francisco assistant coach Hal DeJulio saw Russell play during his final high school game. He scored 14 points – the final eight in the first half and six in a row to close out the game. It was the first time he’d ever had more than 10.
“All the players could jump, but Russell excelled at it,” DeJulio said in The Dandy Dons. “I could see great speed, great quickness. He had great timing. He was all over the ball. The tighter the game, the tougher Russell got. I could feel the electricity.”
DeJulio spoke with Powles, who informed him that no college had even inquired about Russell.
After graduating from high school in January of 1952, Russell was selected, mostly due to his height, to play for a traveling team comprised of Oakland players. They went to small towns in the Pacific Northwest, as well as Canada. The team played a run-and-gun style, as opposed to the “textbook” approach that dominated at the time, where players barely left their feet on the defensive end.
Russell studied the moves of some of his more talented teammates and visualized himself executing the advanced coordination. He talked endlessly with others during long bus rides about spin moves, pump fakes and ball handling. He also studied the inverse of those moves he admired, pondering how he could neutralize them defensively.
“To play good defense… it was taught, back then, that you had to stay flatfooted at all times to react quickly,” Russell once said. “When I started to jump to make defensive plays and to block shots, I was initially corrected. But I stuck with it, and it paid off.”
In practice, the left hander elatedly started tossing his opponents layup attempts astray with ease.
“I had a premonition that defense would become my calling card,” he said.
His excitement grew into confidence as his hours of practice and study began to pay off. As the tour progressed, he blocked and altered shots with regularity. That may sound quite simple today, but at the time, there was little value attached to the blocked shot.
Defense was seen as an opportunity to rest up for the next offensive possession. Expending such energy reserves was deemed not worth the risk, along with the ideas of a defender leaving his feet, opening up the lane while playing help defense or committing fouls.
Russell was also developing a shrewd intelligence for the art of rebounding. He studied caroms and how they related to the angles of the shot, along with the parabola and spin of the ball. He concentrated on footwork and positioning.
When he spoke to his father after engaging in his enjoyable summer study project, he told him gleefully, “I can play now.”
But his future seemed headed towards being a sheet metal worker, as no scholarship offers materialized.
University of San Francisco coach Phil Woolpert had continually been hearing from one of his players who came across Russell on the local playgrounds and at the Boys Club. Rumors were fiercely circulating about the skinny kid in Oakland who was supposedly rejecting every shot that came his way.
Returning home from the tour, his father informed him that coaches from the University of San Francisco had stopped by the house, wanting to talk about college.
The school took a calculated risk by offering him a scholarship, relying on his vast potential as opposed to his meager high school resume. As a freshman during1952-1953 school year, Russell and his freshman teammates Hal Perry and KC Jones were among a small handful of African-American students on campus.
The small Jesuit school of 3,000 students was far from a basketball powerhouse. Lacking an on- campus facility, the Dons practiced at a high school gym.
On road trips down south, Russell and his teammates encountered blatant racism where they were denied housing and food. Things weren’t rosy at home either, as the players and school officials received nasty letters. These early experiences, combined with his advanced personal studies of philosophy and black achievement, planted the seeds of his later social activism.
Russell marinated on the freshman team, as first-year students could not compete on the varsity squad in those days. During his first official practice, he struggled with a warm-up exercise of walking while squatting. Some teammates openly called him an awkward freak.
But the freshman coach accelerated his development and slowly armed him with fundamentals. Russell put in late-night, solitary hours, armed with a drive to not only learn and improve, but to excel.
The freshman squad went 19-4 with Russell averaging 20 points per game. He also showed remarkable promise as a high-jumper in track and field by clearing the bar at 6 feet, 9 inches. In his first varsity game as a sophomore, he scored 23 points and swatted 12 shots. USF finished with a record of 14-7, a marked improvement from previous years.
During his junior and senior seasons, the University of San Francisco won 55 straight games and back-to-back NCAA titles. They were transformed from an impotent team in a weak conference, into the country’s best program. Before Russell and KC Jones made the scene, the college game was white, earthbound and deliberate.
When they were done, the blueprint of college ball’s racial integration and the future premium placed on speed, aggressive defense and verticality was firmly in place. And Bill Russell was, literally and figuratively, the pivot point of this transformation, paving the way for African-American talent in major college basketball while altering the game in the process.
Russell averaged 21 points and 20 rebounds during his college career and was so dominant that the lane was widened in the college game from six to twelve feet. Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden called him “The greatest defensive man I’ve ever seen.”
When the Harlem Globetrotters’ owner Abe Saperstein showed up to convince him to join the franchise, he made a terrible miscalculation by attempting to negotiate solely with his college coach. Russell was kept occupied by Saperstein’s assistant, who fed him corny jokes. Livid at being thought of as too dumb to negotiate his own future, Russell angrily declined their substantial contract offer.
Russell missed a big portion of his rookie season to captain the 1956 United States Olympic Basketball team, which won the gold medal in Melbourne, Australia. The average margin of victory was a staggering 54 points per game.
In 48 games as a rookie with the Celtics, he averaged 20 rebounds and delivered the franchise its first ever world championship. He proceeded to lead them to ten more championships over an incredible 13-year period.
Let’s be clear – without Bill Russell, the great Boston franchise enjoys nowhere near the marquee status it currently enjoys as one of history’s most accomplished sports franchises. Think IRRELEVANT, as in the Pips without Gladys Knight, the Blue Notes minus Teddy Penderdrass, or the entire moronic cast of The Jersey Shore.
Until some guy named Michael Jeffrey Jordan came along, Russell was wholeheartedly endorsed as history’s greatest player. And according to some hoops aficionados, he still is. His rivalry with the game’s most inexorable offensive force ever, Mr. Wilt Chamberlain, yanked the game out of sporting obscurity and into the mainstream.
And don’t believe, for one simple minute, that the great Kareem Abdul Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time blocked shots leader. Had the stat been kept during Russell’s reign, as blocked shots were not an official statistic until 1974, the record would insurmountably belong to Russell as well.
He was the greatest victor in the history of American team sport, the best defender of all-time and the progenitor of modern basketball as we know it.
So with Luis Scola, Brook Lopez, Kevin Garnett, Roy Hibbert and JaVale McGee among the big men backing a Brinks truck up to a bank near you, and with the continuing Dwight Howard hubbub, I’m truly perplexed with a hypothetical question running through my mind.
What in the wide, wide world of sports would Bill Russell be worth, if he was blocking all those shots, vacuuming in all those rebounds and winning all of those championships today?
Alejandro Danois, Bounce Magazine’s Senior Editor and a Contributing Writer with Sporting News, is also a freelance sports and entertainment writer whose work has been published by the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and Dime Magazine, among others.