"The tour would give me three wishes: a chance to play basketball every day, a trip out of Oakland, and a way to avoid the burden of facing the real world and looking for a job." (Bill Russell writing about his first basketball road trip in 1952).
In his excellent book about life and basketball, Second Wind, Bill Russell devotes an equal amount of space to both his private life and his career as a sports superstar. The off-court autobiographical stuff is good - opinionated and critical, warm and affectionate, open and revealing. But it`s the basketball stories that are fascinating for any real hard-core fan of the game.
Russell was one of basketball`s premier strategists, who took the time to articulate his ideas and experiences for the edification of the rest of us. There is something wonderful about intelligent, insightful writing about a sport you love, and Russell really delivers the goods.
Here are a few samples from Second Wind:
On the potent art of visualization: Within a week after the All-Star tour began, something happened that opened my eyes and chilled my spine. I was sitting on the bench, watching Treu and McKelvey. Every time one of them would make one of the moves I liked, I`d close my eyes just afterward and try to see the play in my mind. In other words, I`d try to create an instant replay on the inside of my eyelids. Usually, I`d catch only part of a particular move the first time I tried this; I`d miss the head work or the way the ball was carried or maybe the sequence of steps. But the next time I saw the move, I`d catch a little more of it, so that soon I could call up a complete picture.
I talked basketball incessantly. And when I wasn`t talking I was sitting there with my eyes closed, watching plays in my head. I was in my own private basketball laboratory, making mental blueprints for myself.
On defense: Like the jump shot and defense in general, blocked shots would take some time to work their way into favor with basketball coaches. I blocked so many shots on the tour that my teammates began referring to them as "Russell moves," which pleased me. They were acknowledging that I had a trademark they admired, and this was the first sign that my basketball personality would be built around defense.
Defense came to me more or less accidentally. It fit well into the peculiar way I studied the game. I was the only left-handed player on the team, and being "other-handed" always favors the defense in basketball because your stronger and surer hand is opposite the shooting hand of the player you`re guarding. My natural left-handedness was one of several factors that pushed me toward defense. I often felt that it was a curse to be left-handed, but by the time I reached the pros I realized it was an enormous advantage; by making me appreciate defense, left-handedness helped me to be innovative.
On "natural" talent: For years, I also worried about my lack of "natural" basketball talent, the kind of skill some future stars have when they`re six years old and have hand-eye coordination that is the envy of every kid in the neighborhood. I didn`t have that, but by the time I became a pro, I realized that players who rely only on instinctive talent are fragile. They are the kind who can be stars one year but retired the next because they`ve "lost it." They don`t work at the game because they`ve never had to. More important, they have no history of learning how to compensate for lack of physical skill. Old pros must have this ability to be competitive after they`ve lost spring and speed, and eventually I was grateful for all the time I`d spent with my chin in my hand trying to figure out how to make up for the fact that natural players could do things I couldn`t.
On jumping: During a game, a teammate leaned over to me and said, "Hey you can jump. What he meant, of course, was that I could really jump. I`d begun to notice the same thing. Whenever a clump of the taller players went up off the floor for a rebound, there`d be an instant when I found myself up there alone.
On that tour, I was in the first glow of both jumping and of discovering new moves. They reinforced each other: I jumped higher because the moves in my mind were beginning to work on the court, and some of the moves worked better because I was jumping so high.
At one point, something so good happened that it scared me. I got the ball near the basket on offense, went up as high as I could to take a short jump shot, and suddenly realized that I was looking down into the basket.
Leaping high had hooked me. Two years later, during the off-season at USF, some friends and I tested how high I could reach from a running start. I left chalk dust from my fingertips at a point fourteen feet above the floor - four feet above the basket and a foot above the top of the backboard. I loved jumping. It would have been easy for me to dunk the ball even in a twelve-foot basket.
I`ll present one more column with some of Bill Russell`s pithy comments next week. After that, it`s up to you sport to acquire Second Wind (published by Ballantine Books) if you are interested enough to see what more the great man has to say about the art and science of basketball - which is a helluva lot more than meets the eye on a typical NBA Saturday afternoon in front of the tube.
McGee can be reached via email @ firstname.lastname@example.org