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October 25th, 1965 Sports Illustrated

 

Bill Russell: The Psych...and My Other Tricks

As they begin pursuit of their eighth straight title the stars of the world champion Boston Celtics are beginning to show their age, are more injury prone and have lost one of their longtime key colleagues, Tom Heinsohn. They will have to rely, more than before, on their savvy and cunning. The biggest star of them all tells how he uses such tactics to intimidate and bamboozle his opponents

Bill Russell , Bob Ottum

 

The first thing I am not about to do is look up the definition of psychology in the dictionary. Why bother? I mean, dictionaries are nice and all that, but did old Daniel Webster ever have to stand there at the top of the key and define five sweating monsters rushing down at him? He did not. Well, then.

 

I will not confuse you with Webster's words, because my definition of psychology is something else again, and I have been practicing it for a whole flock of years now and I ought to know. In my psychology you wear short pants and tape and sneakers, and this is the kind of thing you do:

 

Say I am standing next to a rookie who has just come into the game—some hotshot college All-America who is not yet used to his rookie role. The action is swirling all around him, and I say to him, casually, "Hey, what's the matter with you, baby? Don't they ever pass that ball to you? What are you, a nothing on this club?" Oh, yeah, they laugh it off. But you can see them thinking about what you said.

 

Or I find someone who is new in the league, and I stand next to him and hack and cough it up. Sometimes I feel I should get an Oscar for this. I know they're watching me out of the edge of their eyes, and they are figuring, "So this is the great Bill Russell. Hell, he's just a tired old cat. And here I am, as fresh as can be." They don't know that I have a reserve tank.

 

You say these are minor league tricks? Maybe. But you'd be surprised at how often they work. The thing is, you have to pick your spots. Let's say you are playing center opposite Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia 76ers, and it is one hot and heavy game. The score is just about even, and it is the middle of the second quarter—the time when you're most tired before getting your second wind. Tired? Listen, you are so tired that your leg muscles burn, and you know in your heart that Wilt is as tired as you are. But you are both breathing shallowly so as not to give any sign of how you really feel. Now. Wilt is on defense, and he is leaning on you with all of his 250 pounds and you have your mouth up close to his ear and you say to him, pleasantly, "Hey, baby. I never thought I'd see the day when a great big guy like you would be pushing an old man like me around."

 

So what does Wilt say to you? Wilt says, "Don't give me that old psych, baby." (I have cleaned up that quote. I have also shown that psychology does not work every time. The trick is in knowing who to talk to under the basket.)

 

I have enough of these situations cataloged inside my head to do a master's thesis on The Psychology of Basketball, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Spook the Opposition. As a matter of fact, this is my thesis, and the next case is a psychological horror story.

 

This thing first happened years ago. Frank Ramsey, the star of the situation, is in retirement, but we still pull his old trick, often with K.C. Jones in Ramsey's role. Now. Here we have Nate Thurmond, 6 feet 11, of the San Francisco Warriors, who has a dandy little jump shot from about 15 feet out from the basket. He comes barreling downcourt, he stops short and he goes way up into the air off those powerful, springy legs. Things are tough already, right? But to make it worse, because of a switch, Thurmond is being guarded at the moment by little Ramsey, who is just 6 feet 3. Now. Frank has been all over Thurmond like a swarm of gnats, but what is he going to do about that jumper half a mile over his head? Does Ramsey try to jump with Thurmond? He does not. Ramsey runs at Thurmond, full blast. Then, as Thurmond goes up into the air, Ramsey squinches down and runs right under him. He doesn't touch him, just runs right under him, fast and low, going toward the opposite basket.

 

So here is Thurmond, hanging up there in the air with a head full of terrible worries. Things like: 1) My God, am I going to come down on top of Ramsey and hurt myself? 2) Wait a minute! Ramsey is supposed to be guarding me. Where does he think he's going? 3) How can I hit the basket with all this nonsense going on, anyway?

 

That was the idea, of course. Then, about the time Thurmond was pushing the ball away, he would suddenly realize where Ramsey was going. Frank was going for the far basket, that's where. And Thurmond knew, with that little stab of pain in his stomach, that if he missed the shot I would probably grab the rebound and fire off a long pass to Ramsey for an easy layup. This situation does not exactly figure to fill a shooter with an overwhelming mood of confidence. It would spook Thurmond something awful.

 

In our league I promise you that any team can beat any other team on a given night. The difference a lot of the time is all psychological. We use every little trick, every pressure, every mental gimmick we can. And there are certain rules that I live by. We'll call them Russell's Laws.

 

Russell's First Law: You must make the other player do what you want him to do. How? You must start him thinking. If he is thinking instead of doing, he is yours. There is no time in basketball to think: "This has happened; this is what I must do next." In the amount of time it takes to think through that semicolon, it is already too late.

 

Russell's Second Law: You got to have the killer instinct. If you do not have it, forget about basketball and go into social psychology or something. If you sometimes wonder if you've got it, you ain't got it. No pussycats, please. The killer instinct, by my definition, is the ability to spot—and exploit—a weakness in your opponent. There are psychological subrules in this category.

 

To wit: always try a rookie. If you score on him and he thinks that maybe you scored because you are Bill Russell the superstar, he is yours forever after and you can wear him like a bauble on a charm bracelet.

 

To wit, further: always try a veteran. In my first year in pro basketball I came up against veteran Johnny Kerr, now with Baltimore. I blocked so many shots on him that first night—perhaps you remember—that he was wild with rage. He was so fired up they had to take him out of the game. That is frustration. That is also psychology. (And I might point out that as soon as he calmed down enough that season Kerr deliberately changed his style of shooting when he played against Boston. That is a kind of reverse psychology.)

 

Russell's Third Law: Be cute but not cuddly. I mean, you should be nice at all times, but there is a lot to be said for an elbow in the chops when all else fails. This is forceful psychology. Last resort stuff.

 

Russell's Final Law: Remember that basketball is a game of habit. In getting good at it, we develop certain habits. Therefore, if you make a player deviate from his habits—by psyching him—you've got him.

 

Right about here I would like to insert another psychological situation. In every game there is a crucial turning point, right? It comes when you are eight points up on the opponent and they have the ball. Now. If they score, they are only six points down. If you score, you're 10 points ahead and you have broken the game open. Right?

 

If you believe the above statement to be true, you have just been psyched. A lot of players figure this to be true, but it ain't necessarily so. If you start believing in things like turning points, you are lost. You play your best. All the way.

 

In my own life there are some psychological high points. For example, at McClymonds High School in Oakland, where I began playing the game, I got a quick cram course. It boils down to this: never allow yourself to get angry while playing. In those days we had an all-Negro starting five, and those were explosive days, racially. Our coach, George Powles, knew it and we knew it, and one day before a game he called us together.

 

"Fellas," said Powles, "I know most high school kids occasionally get mad during games. But remember the spot you're in here. If you get mad and start a fight, it isn't just a fight. It's a riot. And you'll be the ones who are blamed. I'm not telling you not to get mad. But if you do get mad, use it to play better." It has stuck with me through the years.

 

My first experience with big-time, massive mob psychology came when the University of San Francisco was on its wild, 60-game winning streak in my college days. We were a great team—make no mistake about that—but once we got this terrible "unbeatable" monster idea loose, all we had to do a lot of times was show up at the gym and we had the game won. I remember the Christmas season of 1955 and the Holiday Festival Tournament in Madison Square Garden. These are critical games; careers are made and broken in this tournament. Well, here was UCLA, ready to meet us in the finals. UCLA had to be an awfully tough team to get that far. They were no patsies. In fact, there were those who were saying, "Here is where Bill Russell and San Francisco will get their lumps."

 

Somewhere out in this great land, maybe even today, there must be some tourney committeeman still kicking himself for what happened next. First, both teams were quartered at the same hotel. This is not the grandest thing in the world for two keyed-up college basketball teams. And, through a second terrible mistake, we both got assigned to the same dining room for our pregame meal.

 

There was the UCLA team around the table. Their coach had a rule, I think, that they had to eat in perfect silence; the idea was that they were supposed to brood on the game or something like that. Then we walked into the room like a big birthday party. We were laughing and shouting and throwing dinner rolls at each other and gagging it up and disturbing everybody in the place. We were also eating like crazy and, out of the corners of our eyes, we could see the Uclans coming apart. "Look, they're not even worried," those guys were thinking to themselves. "They're not in the least worried about us, about the title."

 

The game that followed wasn't much; the meal was one of America's great moments in sports. Honestly, we could have just thrown our sneakers out there on the floor and those guys would have jumped this high. We beat them 70-53.

 

Things are a lot tougher than that in the pros, of course, but psychology is always a help. Say we are playing Baltimore, and Walt Bellamy, as usual, is giving me trouble. Well, I do not breathe hard around Bellamy; he knows this psych. I breathe easily—to throw him off—but then I do not run down the court on the fast break, to throw him off again. He thinks I am tired but trying not to show it. When I feel he is relaxed, I burst down on the break, and we murder him. But this works just once and two points do not win a ball game. Now we are ready for our No. 1 play, which demonstrates that options are really psychological weapons.

 

K.C. Jones gives me the ball at the top of the key. He rolls up alongside me, and we both stand stock still for a split second; we are setting up a double screen for Sam Jones. Around comes Sam, and I hand him the ball and he is safe behind this fence that K.C. and I have built (assuming we have done our jobs correctly). Sam jumps and plops in an easy one. Baltimore seems to be getting anxious—which is just what we want.

 

Next time we get the ball, K.C. gives it to me at the top of the key. He rolls up alongside me, and we both stand still for a second. Here is Sam, going to beat hell, and he starts around us. Now. If we have played our parts right they are overplaying Sam. I quickly hand the ball back to K.C, who wheels and cuts in for the basket, all alone, and drops it through. Sure, you can call this plain old-fashioned basketball tactics. But we have so many options to this play that when K.C. gives me the ball at the top of the key, our team and their team start a series of split-second thinking matches, with fakes and switches and sleight-of-hand moves all over the place. I call it psychology.

 

Now, over on their bench, the coach leaps up and yells, "Who the devil is guarding Jones?" and they all look a little embarrassed, including those who are not sure which Jones he means. I don't suppose we can take credit for that, but it helps, too.

 

I also have my own little game called block-that-shot. I've always said that I can block only from 8% to 10% of the shots taken against me—even if I'm lucky. The secret is in knowing which 8% or 10% I'm going to go after. Put it another way: if I block only 8% of the shots you take but 90% of the ones I go after, whose shooting is going to be affected?

 

The year before I came into the NBA, Neil Johnston was third in the league in scoring, and I was worried about him from the start. I wasn't worried about his shooting; Neil had a low-trajectory, soft little hook, and I figured I could block nine out of 10 of them. But this created a new problem for me. If I did block them Neil would surely change his style against me and come up with something I probably couldn't handle as easily. So I took the psychological route. I would let him alone just enough to keep him puzzled; block just enough so that he wouldn't get riled and try something new. I would keep a little mental boxscore and make sure the score came out in our favor. Or try, anyway.

 

In our senior years as pros, the Celtics have learned all the little tricks and all about each other. I have learned, for example, that K.C. Jones does not have a bagful of defensive moves. He has a whole truckload of defensive moves. He will pester a guy so much that the guy will start to look for K.C. even when he's not there. So help me, I have seen this happen: some pro who has been dogged by K.C. all night will suddenly get hard-nosed about it. "Well, by damn, I'll show him" this guy will say to himself. I mean, everybody has got his pride, right? So here is this fellow, and he's going to prove to the world that he can bring the ball up the floor against the mighty K.C. Jones. And here he comes, flashing and ducking and dancing and dodging, dribbling up a storm and dazzling everybody with his cross-handing. The crowd is cheering wildly. Hoo Ray. But the only thing is that the other four members of his team are standing around doing nothing and we—the Celtics—are just waiting for the show to end. We are all breathing easily—we rest during these little demonstrations, you know—ready to bring down the curtain by stuffing the ball down his proud little throat. It's that old routine about getting them mad.

 

One of my jobs is to be steerer for our team. This is a lot like the guy standing outside the sideshow tent steering people in to see the dancing girls. With the exception of a few superstars—those sneaks—I can steer most everybody in this league. Say they're rolling in toward me, and I want them to go to their right. First, I've got to get them thinking instead of playing naturally. I fake directly toward them with my head, and with my left arm extended—pointed straight toward their chest—and my weight on my left foot. This is not exactly the prettiest posture in all the world, and immediately they think, "Ah hah. Russell has his weight on the wrong foot." And, sure enough, they swerve right every time to go around me.

 

Now. I can whirl completely around quickly enough off the left foot (which turns out to be the right, or correct, foot after all), plant all my weight on my right foot, leap up, and when I'm at the peak of my jump, guess who has just shot—if my timing is correct. If I want them to move left, I swing my left arm over a little more to their right. You follow me here? I have very long arms, and they have got to move left.

 

There are exceptions all over the place, of course. Oscar Robertson for one. He won't move where I want him to. He takes one quick look at those long arms and he figures, "Now, now. He wants me to do something." So he stops short and shoots me to death from outside. Elgin Baylor is as bad. Sometimes worse.

 

Everybody in the league knows that Baylor—otherwise the complete player—can't move too well to his left. But in one moment of desperation in one of the playoffs I gave up trying to steer him left, and I let him come right. At the last minute I took one giant step sideways, and he ran smack into me and drew a foul for charging. I mean, it ain't exactly psychological, but you do what you can.

 

Now that you're full of psychological steam, you're ready to handicap the NBA this season. You probably figure right away that this is the year the Celtics will lose, because we are getting older and we tire more easily. Right?

 

So who needs to get tired? To play a game 48 minutes without falling over dead, I cut down the size of the court like an old boxer cuts down the size of the ring. I cut down my ring by staying out of the corners. What do I want with the corners, anyway? Willie Naulls is the last of the great red-hot corner shooters, and Willie is on my team, remember? I cut out the half-court corners, too, for a total of eight places I never go anymore. (Well, almost never. Don't go believing this too much or you've had it again.)

 

I'm starting a new, three-year contract and my 10th year in pro basketball—at age 31. Not long ago The Christian Science Monitor said that Bill Russell would be the next coach of the Boston Celtics. Well, maybe I could have the job if I wanted it when I'm through playing. But what have I got to gain from being a coach? I've got everything to lose. I'm like a gunfighter with a reputation. I've won a few showdowns at the tennis-shoe corral and everybody wants to try me. The team is in the same position. We used to have traditional rivals but, now that the Celtics have beaten everybody, everybody is our traditional rival. Everybody gets up for us, and sometimes when we come out on the floor we can feel the tension crackle.

 

A lot has been printed about how I tense up before every game. You know—get moody and throw up. Well, maybe I don't get up as high for the games now as I used to get. Now I just throw up for playoffs. Instead there are times, when I'm feeling especially moody, when I sit there on the training table and sort of dream. Trainer Buddy LeRoux is winding tape around my ankles, and I close my eyes and feel just like a gladiator. I promise you, I know deep inside, behind my ribs, just exactly how the old-time Roman gladiators must have felt in those tight moments before they went out there into the arena.

 

It is a weird sensation, I'll say that for it. But bring on the lions. All your best lions, please. We'll give them a few fakes, we'll talk to the rookie lions a little, we'll steer the other lions around, we'll spook them up. And maybe you'll see some lions with their manes down around their knees.

 

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