Bill Russell: First Wind, 1957

[While at home flipping through a manila folder full of newspaper articles, I happened upon this clip from the Boston Herald, dated January 10, 1971. Bob Temple, a long-time reporter at the paper, waxes nostalgic about the night of November 16, 1957. According to Temple, that’s when Boston’s second-year center Bill Russell and his defensive wizardry changed pro basketball forever.

Russell was matched up against Philadelphia star Neil Johnston, the NBA’s leading scorer. It was Johnston’s first appearance in Boston Garden that season and, well, Russell’s defensive pressure was known to give Warriors’ star fits. In this game, Russell turned up his defensive pressure a notch, and Johnston, the focal point of the Warriors’ offense, turned down his field-goal attempts. He couldn’t take getting another hook shot swatted.

I’m not sure that Temple is correct about the epic significance of this game and its “abrupt halt” on the low-post game. A quick flip through Russell’s autobiographies turns up no mention of this game. He does say in Second Wind, “In the NBA back then, a hook shot was considered almost unstoppable. I could block one, but I had to learn that proving it was not the point.” Russell explained, “Blocking hooks to show that I could do so would be bad strategy on my part. For one thing, I didn’t want players to stop taking hook shots, which they might if it became known that I could stop it; for another, I’d already learned that you don’t try to block every shot.” 

Epic or not, it’s clear that Russell was on an absolute tear that night against Johnston and the Warriors. Russell finished with 28 points, an ultra-intimidating flurry of blocked shots (they still weren’t tallied), and a record 49 rebounds. Yes, 49 rebounds. Here’s Temple paying homage 13 years later to that incredible performance as well as to Russell himself and his NBA legacy.]

Basketball as played in the National Basketball Association during its first decade, beginning in 1946, was not an exciting game. Slow, cumbersome athletes with more muscle than finesse dominated a sport characterized by excess fouling, rough play, and lack of movement. 

It was the era of the Minneapolis Lakers, who, with their giant center George Mikan, would become professional basketball’s first dynasty. The mode of play stressed the low-post game, and Mikan and the Lakers worked it to perfection. George would position himself five to 10 feet from the basket, just outside the then three-foot foul lanes. 

With no 24-second clock to worry about, the ball would eventually find its way into Mikan. Somehow number 99 would spot it through those fogged-over glasses, through which he could not possibly see, catch it in those huge hands, and, with elbows flying and huge bulk mowing down opponents, he would hook it in. 

If the defense sagged too much on him, then Mikan would pass the ball to one of his big-and-mean forwards, Vern Mikkelsen or Jim Pollard, for a driving layup. For variety, the two-handed, set-shooting guards, Whitey Skoog and Frank “Pep” Saul, would pop a few in from 30 feet.

The style of play would come to an abrupt halt on the night of November 16, 1957, when the 1955-56 world-champion Philadelphia Warriors came to Boston Garden for a game against the 1956-57 world-champion Boston Celtics. 

The 12,916 who attended that night would witness the most significant and revolutionary game in basketball history, the effects of which are still being felt today. 

The Warriors are four games behind the Celtics in the Eastern Division, and Philadelphia coach George Senesky will concentrate on getting the ball to his center Neil Johnston, the league’s leading scorer with a 26 point-per-game mark. Senesky hopes the veteran Johnston will handle second-year man Bill Russell, his nemesis a year ago, and stop Boston’s 10-game winning streak. 

Johnston, the premier low-post hook shooting center of the day, has driving, jump-shooting forwards Paul Arizin and Joe Graboski, and set-shooting guards Jack George and George Dempsey as his capable teammates. 

Neil Johnston in the low post.

Midway through the second period, the Celtics are ahead, 38-33, and the ball comes into Johnston. He hooks left—blocked and recovered by Russell—and the Celtics’ lanky center drives in for a dunk and is fouled. [Editor’s NoteBoston Globe reporter Jack Barry, who covered the game, sets up a different chronology: “Hardly had referee Mendy Rudolph tossed up the ball at center then Johnston, gaining possession from a teammate, tried a hook shot that was blocked cleanly by Russell, and Bill, recovering it, went all the way to dunk a left-hander.”] 

Moments later, it is 45-36. This time, Johnston hooks right—blocked by Russell—over to Cousy, to Sharman, to Heinsohn for a layup. Johnston is completely flustered and must be replaced by Walt Davis, a former Olympic high-jumping champion. The pass is into Davis, who hands off to a driving Arizin—blocked by Russell—over to Cousy, a downcourt pass to Sharman, who swishes from the corner. 

The Celtics would win, 111-89, and Russell would outscore Johnston, 28-4, while holding him to one field goal in 12 attempts. Russell would grab a record 49 rebounds, a feat comparable to hitting five homers in a game, scoring six goals in one hockey game, or throwing eight touchdown passes in a football contest. [Editor’s Note: Ironically, Russell smashed the previous rebound record of 39, set on December 4, 1954 by none other than Johnston. The Celtics also smashed the NBA record for team rebounds in this game with 103. If you’re wondering, the Warriors shot a dreadful 33 for 109 on the evening. The previous NBA record for team rebounds belonged to the New York Knicks, who snatched 93 caroms in a 1953 game.]

So ended the low-post game. Enter the center playing the high post, near the foul line. So ended the driving forward; enter the corner jump shooter. The guards would have to jump shoot now, as the set shot was too easy to block. Opposing guards could now concentrate on stopping their own men, rather than helping out under the boards. 

On that day, Russell would introduce the idea of the center defense, the blocked shot, the denial of the drive and layup, and the triggering of the fastbreak to unimaginable levels. It would ultimately lead to 11 world championships in 13 years.

He would introduce the unheard-of idea of winning on the road, he would later destroy the concept that the Celtics could not win once Bob Cousy retired, and he would always win the big one. 

Russell would open up basketball to Blacks, both as a player and as a coach. On the night of that game against Philadelphia, only 13 of the 108 NBA players were Black with no Black coaches. On the eve of his final game 12 years later, 97 of the 198 NBA players were Black. Within one year of his retirement, Lenny Wilkens, Al Attles, and John McClendon would be Black professional basketball coaches . . .

In both style of play and in the future social standards of professional basketball, there could be no more significant name in basketball history. From that day on, William Felton Russell made everyone an imitator. 

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