Bill Russell, Professional Basketball and Me, Or, Bye, Bye Miss American Pie

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I was born and raised in a basketball state. We had a football coach back in the later 40s- early 50’s, you may have heard of him, name of Paul Bryant. Took my state university to three straight bowl games, Sugar, Orange and Cotton, ’50, ’51 and ’52, then just up and quit and started all over again in Texas. Someone asked him why. “Well, for my success the state boosters bought me a new car. But when Coach Rupp won 3 national championships in that same period, they bought him a farm. I figured I’d always be Number 2 in Kentucky.”

Bear Bryant was wise. I think I was 8 yrs old when he left Kentucky, taking the job at Texas A&M in ’54, then to Alabama where he would elevate college football to new standards. A legend. But my dad hated him. After all, it was a coal camp and we had few pastimes, the weekly radio Kentucky football and basketball broadcasts the cold season…and basketball, at 25 games a year, versus only 10 in football, was double the entertainment.

I was probably 10 when I listened to my first Kentucky basketball game. I remember all the players, stars and bench warmers. My folks had a tall mahogany Motorola record player- radio in their bedroom, and UK won their next national championship in ’58 and I listened to every game on that radio. They were an unranked team of unknowns; Ed Beck (a minister), Johnny Cox, John Crigler, Vernon Hatton and Adrian Smith, not one pro-material, although Adrian Smith was signed later by the Royals because he’d made the 1960 Olympic team  playing for an amateur team (AAU). And UK had a guy sitting at the end of the bench by the name of Abraham “Abe” Lincoln Collingsworth, who only came into the game if Kentucky was way ahead. You’ve heard of his son, I’m sure, as he became an all-pro receiver with the Bengals and now an NFL announcer.

Kentucky won the Championship that year with the worst record of any team in its history, (6 losses) and got to the Finals largely by luck, where they played Seattle University, who had one of the greatest pure athletes to play basketball of any era, Elgin Baylor. Baylor went onto to be one of the founding fathers of the Los Angeles Lakers, along with Jerry West, when it move to the West Coast from Minneapolis.

I listened to that entire 1958 basketball tournament on that old Motorola for three weeks, standing up, all announced by a man from my home county, Harlan, by the name of Cawood Ledford. Pacing around my parents’ bed you can’t imagine the promises I made to God about the things I’d give up if He’d only let Kentucky win. Which He did. I was 12 at the time.

And since I crawdaded out of all those promises before the start of the next season, God got even for I would be 32 before Kentucky would ever win another national championship, in 1978. And by then they were actually televising college games, so no matter where I lived I could follow my Kentucky Wildcats, both in football and basketball.

Which leads me to the NBA (National Basketball Assn) for in those days the only basketball we could watch on television were the pro teams, NBC I think, and only 8 teams. In the east it was a solid menu of the Celtics, Knicks, Warriors and Nationals (Syracuse). I liked Bob Pettit with the St Louis Hawks but they only showed up in the playoffs. They had a Kentucky great, Cliff Hagan from the ’52 Kentucky  championship team, and their head-to-head championship series with the Celtics were classics, each winning one.

The Celtics had two Kentucky players and I could watch them almost every weekend. So, like the Kentucky teams I knew their lineup by heart; a guy named Jim Loscutoff, who always started but rarely scored, a great player named Tom Heinsohn from Holy Cross (doing this from memory…feel free to fact check me), the great, great, ball-handler and dribbler, Bob Cousey at guard, and his sidekick shooter, Bill Sharman, and the immortal Bill Russell at center. Sam Jones came off  the bench at guard, and two Kentucky players came off the bench at forward, from the Hagan ’52 championship team; a Greek named Lou Tsioropoulos and Frank Ramsey, who would go on to become the model for the “Sixth Man” during the Celtic’s six championships while be played, his role taken over by John Havlichek, who would lead the Celts to six more after I’d quit following the game in the 60s.

Which brings me back to Bill Russell, who actually made it all happen for Boston. He had led the Univ of San Francisco (Who dey? you say) to back-to-back NCAA championships, their last one being one of only 8 unbeaten seasons on record. Joining the Celtics as probably the greatest defensive player and rebounder of all time, often scoring less than 10 points a game, he was league MVP five times. Russell was the fulcrum around which the Celtic reign spun, winning their first championship his rookie season, 1957. From the time that he joined the team in 1956 until he retired in 1969, the Celtics won 11 championships and lost two. I got to watch that first loss, in ’58, and I was rooting for the Hawks and Cliff Hagan.

Russell’s last two seasons he also coached the Celtics and it was in that year that my bride and another couple drove to Cincinnati to watch the Celtics play the Cincinnati Royals, with Oscar Robertson and UK’s Adrian Smith (above) in the old Cincinnati Garden (capacity 11,000). I was stunned to find that we could buy tickets at the gate rather than pay scalpers. Past the tenth row (later known as the television seats) we had our pick of seats. There couldn’t have been more than 2000 people there. And no television cameras, no national TV. With Oscar and Havlichek still in their prime, and Russell ending his career (the Celts won the NBA championship again this year, 1968), I would have thought the rafters would be shaking.

Of course, there was no easy way to find out what the players’ salaries were, but the arena didn’t seem to be paying for itself. And stars even like Russell weren’t raking in millions in endorsements. I knew that much.

Bill Russell was my favorite NBA player. Still is. And as a thinker outside of basketball I put him in a league with Dick Gregory, the civil rights activist. When Bill Russell spoke, you know he was speaking his own mind, so even if I disagreed with him I knew they were independent thoughts coming from three levels deeper than say Sean Hannity…even when Hannity’s gut may likely be more correct about the politics of the day.

I don’t know what Russell thinks about the rightness or wrongness of this latest teat fit thrown by NBA players who make several times more than he ever did, and who are even unworthy, by comparison, of the pay of the Frank Ramsey’s and Sam Joneses of his time, who came off the bench. But his memories run deep, as do his thought processes, so I’m fairly certain he’s not spiteful of the money these brat-child’s earn today. He knows how things worked from the beginning, as the whole NBA was built on the shoulders of that 1956-1969 run by the Celtics, and the Celtic brand itself was built almost entirely on the shoulders of Bill Russell.

And he saw if fade away by 1968, as I witnessed in the Cincinnati Garden in 1968.

Shoulder-on-shoulder-on-shoulder. Bill Russell knows what can happen here.

As I said, Bill carries his thinking about the prospects of the League and the game of professional basketball to several levels beyond where most thinking goes, having been there when the NBA itself was in knee pants, just as I was barely out of when I first saw him play. Maybe Bill Russell agrees that maybe the League is due a temporary return to its origins, say 20 years, just to get its bearings, so come next chance they’ll have the good sense to keep the lawyers out of the front office, the hidden-persuader “brandsmen” at bay and demand a higher standard in humility for the great talents they’ve been blessed with.

Going Back to Square One seems to be called for now, especially if the League fan base is walking away. It could take 20 years to get it back. And Bill Russell knows there are certain ripple effects that just naturally have to happen, a 20-year hiccup will mean a corresponding retreat at the college, even high school levels.

I still love the game but no longer love the players…virtually none of them and I think the current fan base simply won’t support their self-image and life style.

 

This only seems appropriate:

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