I've run the play so many times that I'm afraid my tape is wearing out. But
I still can't believe what I'm seeing.
It's the final seconds of the seventh game of the 1957 NBA finals and
Boston is down one with the ball. Rookie center Bill Russell takes it at the
foul line and drives the left of the lane. As he gallops past the basket, he
throws up a little lefthanded shot _ kind of a half hook _ over St. Louis
center "Easy Ed" McCauley. The ball goes in, giving the Celtics the lead.
But that's not why I keep watching.
|If you appreciate Al's
might consider buying his book as well. Check out those reviews!!
As the ball goes through the net, McCauley grabs it, steps out of bounds
and rockets a pass to teammate Jack Coleman, who is already deep in the
backcourt. Coleman catches the ball to the left of the foul line extended,
dribbles once, then takes a long stride to the basket. He lays the ball up
for the winning basket ...
Only it never reaches the hoop. Out of nowhere, a black streak appears and
swats the ball against the backboard.
It's Russell, of course, and even after dozens of viewings, I still can't
figure out how he got back to make the block. When last seen on the tape, he
's floating toward the right corner of his own end after putting up his
shot. Somehow, in the time it took Pettit to throw a bullet pass and for
Coleman to cover the last 15 feet to the basket, Russell has reversed his
course and covered 90-plus feet _ passing eight other players along the way
_ to catch up with Coleman and block the potential game-winning shot away.
"I was trying to get to Coleman and he went by me like he was the Roadrunner," Tommy Heinsohn told ESPN. "It was the greatest play I've
If SportsCenter had been in existence in 1957, I'm convinced Russell's
sprint and block would be burned in our memories like Laettner's basket to
beat Kentucky or Jordan's final game-winner against the Jazz. We'd marvel at
it as we marvel at Flutie's Hail Mary to Phelan or Montana's throw to Clark
in the back of the end zone.
Instead, Russell's incredible play exits only on grainy black and white
tape, forgotten by all but a few lucky fans. There's not even a statistical
record of the play, since NBA didn't count blocked shots in that era and if
they did, would one (1) blocked shot define what I consider to be the
greatest single basketball play I've ever witnessed?
I thought about Russell's 1957 game-saver last March, when I watched Duke's
narrow victory over North Carolina in Cameron. I saw Chris Duhon make a
similar play in the closing seconds to preserve a narrow victory over the
Remember the situation? Duke is up three points with the ball, but the shot
clock is running down and the Devils have to put a shot up. Duhon drives,
slashing down the right side of the lane. As Tar Heel defenders converge on
him, he kicks the ball out to Daniel Ewing, who is wide open just beyond the
Ewing misses the game-clinching shot and the rebound is tipped out long to
Rashad McCants, who takes off downcourt. J.J. Redick appears to be the only
Duke defender in the picture. But suddenly, there's Duhon materializing in
McCants' path. His unexpected appearance and the double-team he and Redick
throw on the Tar Heel star seems to unnerve McCants, who loses his bearings
and takes one step too many before stopping just inside the 3-point line. As
he tries to pull back for the game-tying 3, he loses his grip on the ball.
Redick beats McCants to the floor and the rest is easy.
I've watched that tape several times too and upon review, I saw what
happened. Duhon, headed directly for his own baseline when he made the pass
to Ewing, has already started back towards the defensive end before Ewing
releases the ball. In fact, he's the only other player in the picture as
Ewing goes up for the shot. Watch the tape and you can see Duhon flashing
left to right at the bottom of the screen as the shot is released.
It's not nearly the miraculous play that Russell made in 1957 _ Duhon is
not superhuman; Bill Russell is _ but it demonstrates the same principal.
Defense is at least as important as offense when it comes to winning and
losing a basketball game. Yet, so many of the decisive defensive plays made
in a basketball game are not tracked by stats. The offensive numbers we have
are helpful, even if they can be misleading. But I'm not sure our defensive
statistics are very useful at all. We measure blocked shots and steals, but
what about ball denial? What about help defense? What about
Let's go back to Russell for a moment.
When Russell was leading San Francisco to 55 straight wins and back-to-back
national championships, his defensive contribution was amazingly underrated.
His own coach, Phil Woolpert, complained that Russell was a fundamentally
unsound defensive player because he kept leaving his feet to block shots. In
1956, the Dons had to defend their NCAA title without K.C. Jones, who was
ineligible for the tournament. All Russell did was score 26 points and pull
down 27 rebounds to rout Iowa in the 1956 championship game. And you just
know without seeing the tape that neither his points nor his rebounds had
nearly as much to do with the outcome as his defensive presence (Iowa missed
54 of 80 shots in the title game).
Yet, Hal Lear of third-place Temple scored 80 points in the semifinals and
consolation game and was voted the Final Four MVP. Points, not defense,
impressed the voters.
The Rochester Lakers owned the first pick in the NBA draft, but thought so
little of Russell that they used the first pick on guard Sihugo Green. The
St. Louis Hawks owned the second pick, but weren't anxious to draft an
outspoken black man to the NBA's southern-most city. Instead, they traded
the pick to Boston for McCauley, an all-star center who had averaged more
than 20 points a game in 1956, and the rights to future all-star guard Cliff
Give Red Auerbach credit for engineering the deal that brought Russell to
Boston. But not too much credit _ he traded for Russell because he thought
his team needed more rebounding. He admits that he had no idea the
revolutionary impact Russell would have at the defensive end of the floor.
To this day, it's impossible to measure that impact.
Since the NBA didn't keep blocked shots in that era and few complete game
tapes from the late 1950s and early 1960s survive, nobody can measure
Russell's impact statistically, not even by counting his blocked shots. The
issue is a hot topic with historians. Heinsohn insists that Russell averaged
10-15 blocks a year in his first five or six seasons. That seems impossible,
but his impact on the game was undeniable. After his Minneapolis Lakers (the
franchise that could have had Russell) were swept in the 1959 finals, coach
John Kundle said, "We didn't fear the Celtics without Russell. Take him out
and we can beat them. He's the guy who whipped us psychologically. Every one
of our five men where thinking that Russell was covering him on every play."
But the ultimate tribute to Russell came from his NBA peers in 1962. That's
the year that Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds. He
was the unanimous first-team All-NBA center on the team picked by the
writers. However, the MVP vote was by the players and their choice was Bill
Russell, who just happened to lead Boston to another NBA championship.
Okay, let's return to the present again and last week's Duke-North Carolina
game. Listening to talk radio the next day and reading the Internet, I was
amazed how many Tar Heel fans viewed Sean May's performance in that game.
They looked at the numbers and saw that he had 23 points and 18 rebounds,
while Shelden Williams had a mere 11 points, 9 rebounds. The results, many
concluded, proved that May, not Williams was the premier big man in the ACC.
Of course, few paid attention to the defensive stats from that game.
Williams had a remarkable combination of five blocks and five steals. May
had two blocks and no steals. Do a difference of three blocks and five
steals make up for a difference of 12 points and nine rebounds?
Well, there are some hidden stats too. Williams also blocked three shots on
plays where another Duke player fouled the UNC shooter. Watching the tape,
it looks like without his intervention at least two and probably all of
three of those shots would have gone in to set up three-point play
Instead, Williams' three extra blocks turned three potential three-point
plays into three two-shot opportunities at the foul line (which UNC
converted into just three points). Just with those three statistically
non-existent blocks, Williams cost UNC a possible nine points _ a six-point
difference from what they actually scored.
You think that might have made a difference in a game decided by one point?
And yet those plays don't show up on any stat sheet. Neither do the shots
that might have been altered for fear of Williams' presence. Neither do the
inside shots that weren't even attempted due to his early blocked shots. For
much of the game, North Carolina forgot its inside strength and tried to
match Duke in a perimeter shooting game _ which might have been the one area
where the Devils are clearly superior to UNC.
Excuse me, I should have said the one "offensive" area where the Devils
are superior to the Tar Heels.
Looking at the tape, May _ with help from Marvin and Jawad Williams _ did an
excellent defensive job on Shelden Williams, holding him to five points
below his season average. But while May scored eight points more than his
season average, UNC as a team scored 22 points below its season average.
How much of that was Williams' presence in the middle? How much of that was
Duke's pressure on the perimeter? How much of that was Duke's ability to
limit UNC's transition? How much of it was merely Duke's ability to slow the
tempo with the lead most of the second half? How much of it was UNC simply
missing shots it normally makes?
The problem is we just don't have the stats to answer those questions.
Commentators can point to UNC's 23 turnovers and say "Ah-ha! _ that's why
they lost", but is a 23-15 difference in turnovers more significant than UNC
's 43-28 edge on the boards? I might suggest that Williams' blocks in the
post made the difference, but I don't know that they made more of a
difference than the Tar Heels' one extra free throw attempt or their better
field goal percentage.
Why did Duke win?
How do you measure defensive prowess? Don't bring up Pete Carrill's
Princeton teams, which long led the nation in least points allowed.
Commentators seemed to have a hard time understanding that was a function of
tempo, not great defense. Stats like blocked shots and steals are important,
but they don't tell the whole story. Especially steals_ there are plenty of
poor defensive players who constantly gamble for steals and pile up some
good steal stats while killing their team.
I once had a friend who insisted that field goal percentage defense was the
true measure of a team's defensive greatness. He was a Wake Forest fan who
argued that the Tim Duncan Deacon teams were the best defensive teams in the
modern era because their opponents to field goal percentages were always in
the low 30s.
Indeed, those were excellent defensive teams. But I kept telling him that
defending the basket with a great shotblocker and a packed-in defense is not
the only way to defend. UCLA's great defensive teams under John Wooden would
go out and pressure fullcourt and challenge the passing lanes. The Bruins
allowed a higher opponents' field goal percentage, but they also created
more turnovers _ turnovers that lead to easy offensive opportunities.
The greatness of Russell's Celtics teams was that they found they could play
both ways at once. The guy in the middle was such an incredible shot blocker
than he could defend the basket alone, allowing his teammates to overplay on
the perimeter. K.C. Jones and later John Havlicek were defensive demons able
to gamble with impunity as long as Russell was behind them.
I think I see some of that with this Duke team. Williams defends the basket
while Dockery, Ewing and now Nelson attack on the perimeter. It's not at the
same level as the Celtics, of course, and Duke's defensive rebounding _
another often-overlooked defensive factor _ is not nearly as good as Boston'
s was. Still, when the Blue Devil defense is functioning well as it did
against North Carolina, it's one of the most effective combinations of
basket-protection and perimeter-pressure that I've seen.
Of course, I can't prove any of this with stats.
The only real proof is in victory.
That is, after all, the goal of any team. I would also say it's the goal any
player, but that's not really true of every (or even most?) players. You'll
never convince me that Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Chris Webber or Vince
Carter or Rashad McCants care more about winning than about satisfying their
own personal agenda.
Michael Jordan's claim to greatness has little to do with his scoring titles
(Jabbar scored more; Wilt and Oscar had better all-around stats) or even his
MVP awards. It's that he transformed a lousy NBA team in Chicago into a
six-time world champion. Since he did it in the ESPN era, when his
spectacular play was shown repeatedly at 7 and 11, then every hour on the
hour each morning, he's almost universally regarded as the greatest player
in basketball history.
Against that, the small handful of basketball fans who believe Bill Russell
is the greatest player in the history of the league have just one argument:
he won more ... more than Jordan ... more than any other player in NBA
history ... more than any other player in ANY team sport.
Russell's San Francisco teams won the NCAA championship in his junior and
senior seasons. His Boston Celtics won NBA championships in 11 of his 13
seasons. In between, he won an Olympic Gold Medal. That's essentially 14
championships in 16 tries _ and he was hurt in one of the two misses.
I know it's fashionable to dismiss Russell's string of titles by pointing
out that he played on the greatest dynasty in NBA history. He did play with
a lot of other great players _Cousy, Sam Jones, Heinsohn, Havlicek. But the
Celtics aren't the Yankees. Consider this: the Celtics never once reached
the NBA finals before Russell's arrival; while he was there, they won 11 of
13 titles; the year after he retired, they finished 34-48 and had to rebuild
The real question is whether he was part of a dynasty or the reason for it?
We'll never know for sure, because we can't measure all the things Russell
did, just as we can't measure the defensive strengths that have made Duke
into a better team this season than so many rivals expected.
They could see J.J.'s 3-point prowess and Daniel's offensive skills. They
could see Shelden's ability as a rebounder and might even have acknowledged
that he was the best shot-blocker in the ACC. But how could that stack up to
all of North Carolina's weapons or Wake Forest's proven offensive machine?
Even Georgia Tech and maybe Maryland appeared to have more scorers, more
The strengths that make North Carolina and Wake Forest so good _ and believe
me, they are very good teams _ are the things we measure statistically. They
shoot, they score, they rebound. The irony is that they are getting better,
closer to championship quality, as their unmeasurables improve.
But Duke is still there in the race, not because Redick and Ewing are great
offensive players (they are) and Williams is the best all-around big man in
the ACC (he is), but because the Blue Devils are the league's most
fundamentally sound defensive team.
Daniel Ewing, for one, understands this. He wasn't happy with the
officiating Saturday night at Maryland, but he didn't blame the loss on the
"Foul trouble was a big thing, but we gave up 99 points," he said. "We've
got to play a lot better defense. We should have held them in the 60s. The
whole thing is defense now. We're going to score some points. We'll be in
position to win if we play defense."
That's not the kind of thing ESPN can highlight on SportsCenter and it's not
the kind of thing we can measure statistically. But it's real and it's just
as important _ if not more so _ than any other part of the game.