Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bill Russell and the rise of defence

At an early age I was very much a hockey fan, as I grew older I gravitated towards basketball.

At the time you could watch hockey any Saturday night and during Stanley Cup playoffs more often and it was a family ritual.  It was difficult to watch basketball as they didn't have the big US tv contracts.  I read a lot about the NBA and college basketball from magazines.  At  the time Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were very big rivals.  I didn't see too many of their games, but I was very conscious that Wilt was a phenomenal scoring whiz and physically bigger.  Bill Russell was given almost as much coverage and respect by sports writers, but wasn't a scoring whiz or even close to it.  The key thing was his defensive play which was credited with the Boston Celtics winning a huge number of championships.

People do not normally associate basketball and defense with many Canadians at the time dismissing basketball as a real sport because of the high scoring.  Nonetheless if you think about it by just disrupting the opponent's scoring pattern just a tiny bit your team could win even without big scoring.  Scoring was far from automatic, but it did seem players were able to score both easily, and  often spectacularly on an almost routine basis.  The scores tended to yo yo back and forth.  Every now and then someone would do something spectacular to stop the offense, but more often not noticed was just make scoring more difficult.

As I got older the tv contracts made basketball more accessible and I got to watch a bit more of my basketball heroes.   Blocking shots was one of the more spectacular things Bill Russell did, but he explained his secret was not to try to block every shot, just, the ones he was sure he could block. Ideally the opponents would be psyched out and take evasive actions that often resulted in a poor shot.  Bill Russell retired, but was hired to comment on games, later he did some coaching.  I was very impressed with his analysis. Once when a player was injured he talked about compensating actions--you could tell one of his strengths was reading what the other person was about to do.

In some ways I was fortunate at 5"7" to be in places where I would get a chance to play.  Despite my height I was a pretty good jumper and was able to out rebound and even block shots of much taller players occasionally.  Timing and positioning were vital.  Unfortunately I was not a very good shooter.  Another player I modeled on was Dennis Awtrey, a very tall and apparently clumsy player for the Chicago Bulls (before the Raptors my favorite team even before Michael Jordan).  He just seemed to get in the way of very good players.  I could do that.  My favorite memories were playing defense as I just didn't score very often and never when it really counted.  I was  most often assigned to cover the main ball handler of the other team.  I am vain about all that, but realize I would have gotten a lot more attention if I could have shot better.

Hockey was very much followed by my family.  Oshawa was my home town and we had a connection to the Boston Bruins.  Bobby Orr was a local hero who I met once at a track meet where we were both entered in the long jump.  Ironically we were the first two jumpers not to qualify for the next stage.  I then was introduced to him when I had moved to Haliburton and he was hired to work at a hockey camp.   He was a great defensive player, but most noted for being the highest scoring defenceman.  A real joy to watch.

Like most youngsters I loved watching scorers.  Gordie Howe played for Detroit and we didn't get to see him so much except for the playoffs and I became a fan of him.  Many years later I met Gordie at a book promotion and had a private talk with him away from the crowds.   Although slow to appreciate defense I did catch on.  Stopping the offence, unlike with basketball was routine.  In reality a system was at least as important as an individual player, but then an individual could really stymie an effort and inspire his team mates.  Two defensive players caught my attention Bill Gadsby of Detroit and Doug Harvey of Montreal and they were spectacular doing almost anything to throw themselves in front of the puck.

These days the talk in all sports seems to be defence.  It makes the critical difference, but for most fans it is boring.  It is hard to beat the excitement of a goal, basket or touchdown, but it is possible to get almost as much enjoyment out of a good defensive move or even a team defense.  As I get older I realize a good defensive player is every bit as critical to winning a game as the scoring heroes.  Bill Russell was the first to start my education.

The photo is from a biography of Bill Russell written by Murry R Nelson.

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