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Bill Russell poses with Finals MVP LeBron James after the Heat's win in June.

The Q&A: Russell on his health, the Olympics and today's NBA


Posted Sep 13, 2012 12:50 PM

The greatest winner in NBA history had an atypical summer. Instead of participating in his two favorite summertime activities -- golf and driving cross country -- Bill Russell finds himself idle. It is an unfamiliar position for the 11-time NBA champ, a player who revolutionized the game.

Three weeks ago, Russell had open-heart surgery to have a valve replaced. The good news is that Russell, 78, is not only in great spirits and feeling well but has set a goal of hitting the links in about six weeks.

Russell spoke with NBA Entertainment's John Hareas about the procedure and a variety of current NBA topics.

NBA.com: What have you been up to this summer?

Bill Russell: I mostly didn't do anything but I did take care of a health question that needed to be addressed. It's really funny, but what I did was almost routine. But when you describe it, it doesn't sound routine.

I had a valve in my heart that had to be replaced and the way you replace it is by open-heart surgery. Well, open-heart surgery sounds difficult but this was not an emergency. It was something I had to do. The same operation in an emergency is life threatening. This was not life threatening.

They took the valve out and replaced it. It only took a couple of hours to do that. I talked to the doctors after and they said they were pleased with the procedure. They said I would be sore after a while and after that, they said I would feel better than I ever did at this point.

The most I can do now is walk but the two things I enjoy the most, I can't do this summer. Drive my car, which every summer I drive across the country at least twice, and play golf every day. I can't do either one of those for a while.

So, most of the summer I get to be a grouch.

NBA.com: You sound good. You're feeling fine?

Russell: Yes. It's all rehab basically. There was never ever any danger. The reason this was routine was because I was living a clean lifestyle. No drinking, smoking, etc. I'm in good shape.

NBA.com: How long ago was the procedure?

Russell: About three weeks ago.

NBA.com: When do you think you'll be able to hit the links?

Russell: Probably, in another month and a half. When you open up the chest cavity -- and you swing the golf clubs side to side -- well, that's not part of the program when you're rehabbing. Once the soreness is all gone, then I'll be able to go golfing.

The irony was when I was released from the hospital in Seattle and was told no driving or golfing, we had 30-something days of beautiful golfing weather. The Gods must be punishing me for living such a good life.

NBA.com: As a result of the procedure, you weren't able to attend your annual Mentor's Golf Challenge in Long Island, New York. How did that go without you?

Russell: Unfortunately, I couldn't attend since I can't fly right now. The event was a success. My friends who I had asked to attend -- Jim Brown, Julius Erving, Samuel Jackson, Charles Barkley, Reggie Jackson, just to name a few --- were there as well as my daughter, Karen, who represented the family.

I'm so pleased and proud of the attendance and the enthusiasm in which the tournament went off. We were able to accomplish what we set out to do and that is to raise awareness of the Mentor Program and to raise money to finance it. We are very pleased with our contribution to mentoring.

This will be the last tournament I miss. I'll be at the rest of them.

NBA.com: What were your impressions of the performance of the U.S. Men's Olympic Team in London?

Bill Russell: I thought they were a really good team. The longer they played together, the more they worked together and that's a good sign. If they had to play 10 games -- and I don't recall how many they played -- they were much better in the 10th game than they were in the first game and that's because they all knew how to play and how to be a good teammate. And that's the most important thing in a team effort.

NBA.com: There was a lot of discussion about which team was better: the 1992 Dream Team or the 2012 team. Where do you side in that debate?

Russell: I have this theory that it's impossible to play against ghosts -- past, present or future. That kind of discussion is for non-participants. It's like video games. Whenever someone would ask me how I would play against this guy or that guy, I always thought that it was like playing against ghosts. Past, present and future and I never get into that discussion. You can only play against your contemporaries.

Basketball -- out of all of the sports -- is the most evolving. Whoever the best player is, that's how the game is played for a generation.

You never hear the name George Mikan being discussed. But George Mikan won five championships in six years and where does that put him among the all-time greatest players? You can't do it because the game is always changing. The game is dictated by centers. You had Mikan, Wilt, Kareem. Then you build off that with the forwards, Elgin, Larry Bird. Then there is Michael and the guards.

Each era produces a style of play. For someone to say this style of play is better than this style of play, that person doesn't know what they are talking about. So, I never get into that discussion.

NBA.com: Talk about the all-time great Olympic teams is usually reserved for the Dream Team or the 1960 Olympic team featuring Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. Yet, you don't hear anything about the 1956 team, which you played on. That team won by an average of 53.5 points in Sydney. Is the '56 team overshadowed?

Russell: I don't know. We just went out and tried to win each game by the biggest margin that we could. But the game has evolved so much since then. Over the years since then, we have sent players and coaches all over the planet, teaching the game.

Today, there are players from Italy, Spain and South America who can compete favorably with America's best. That was not the case when we were playing. At that time, it was an American game and now it's a world game.

I don't feel like we were overlooked. The only thing that I go by is the gold medal and that's what we were playing for.

NBA.com: Focusing on the offseason, the Celtics made a few moves. Do you think they can emerge out of the East with the additions of Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, despite losing Ray Allen?

Russell: You don't know how they will play together. Getting a better player doesn't necessarily make you a better team. That may sound kind of weird. You may acquire a player with better statistics but may not make you a better team. Red Auerbach and the Celtics, we used to talk about that all the time.

The question you have to ask yourself, 'How does his style fit with what you are going to put him with and will it make you a better team?'

What Miami is doing is similar to a theory that Red used to have. You have a core group and you bring in some veterans so you don't have rookies coming off the bench. Most of the time it worked but sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes, we would bring a veteran in hoping to get one more year out of them but they were psychologically destructive, so we can only use them one year. They were not about winning. They were about their career.

See, a lot of guys give lip service to the concept of winning but they don't mean it.

NBA.com: Were you surprised Ray Allen left the Celtics to sign with Miami?

Russell: No. During the playoffs, I kept hearing people say that his legs were going so his jump shot wasn't as effective. Sometimes, management doesn't make their own decisions and takes the word of someone who doesn't really know. So, Ray can be a boost to Miami. But Jason Terry going to the Celtics can also be a boost. Basically, you're trading a shooter for a scrapper. So, you have to see how it blends in with the guys who you kept.

NBA.com: Do you think the Heat will repeat?

Russell: You can't predict this far ahead. When I played, every year, we started the year like we never won the championship. Red used to say, 'That was then and this is now.' If you go out there with the attitude that, 'We're the champs and you have to come to us,' well, that can be destructive.

NBA.com: What improvement did you notice in LeBron James' game during the NBA Finals?

Russell: He played the way he's always played. And he learned a lot over the years. I remember watching him in the 2007 NBA Finals versus the Spurs and he was extraordinarily good. And he's just gotten better at what he does and he does the same things.

NBA.com: Bill Bradley called you by far the smartest player to ever play in the NBA. Who among today's players stands out from a basketball IQ standpoint?

Russell: I don't think there is such a thing as a great athlete who's dumb. He knows what he's doing and the great ones never approach a game and see what's going to happen, they approach the game to make things happen.

I would never say who is the smartest but there are some players who stand out. Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. Those guys all know what they're doing. They go out to do things, not to see what's going on.

What I admire about Kevin Durant is that he even though he's the leading scorer, he's not always the first option. And that's unusual for an elite scorer because they are usually the first option. Kevin gets his points within the flow of the offense. I don't recall seeing him calling for the ball.

There are probably a dozen-and-a-half guys who know how to play.

NBA.com: No one played with more pride than you did during your career. Who among today's players play with the most pride?

Russell: That's hard to say. Which pride? Pride is what? Pride in how my team does or pride in how I do? See, that's two different kinds of pride. I always look at the guys when they do their best, does it help the team. There are some guys who can have a tremendous night statistically and their team loses.

Players today such as Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, LeBron, these guys are first and foremost team guys. A player who doesn't get much attention and is one of my favorites to watch is Joakim Noah. The Bulls don't utilize some of his skills. Not only is he a good rebounder but he's an excellent passer. A good passer is more important to a team than a good shooter on offense.

These guys are among my favorites to watch. I like to see if they can take a guy's skills and have them contribute to winning.

NBA.com: When you watch a game in person or on TV, what are you focusing on?

Russell: I watch where the players set up. The really good players do as much without the ball as they do with the ball. In fact, they do more without the ball than they do with the ball. They don't need the ball a whole lot. I enjoy watching to see how they set themselves up to get the ball where they want it and how they want it. And that takes as much skill as it does to go one on one and in a lot of situations, it takes more skill because you have to coordinate it with the guy who is passing you the ball.

NBA.com: Dwight Howard is coming off of back surgery, if he's healthy, what will he add to the Lakers?

Russell: We'll have to see. In Orlando, some of his skills went underused. Now, playing in L.A., with a different group and a different emphasis, how will they use his skills in order to win? With the addition of Steve Nash as well, the Lakers can be very, very good. It's going to take them at least half a season -- at least -- before we know how good they can be.

NBA.com: Will Jeremy Lin thrive in Houston like he did in New York?

Russell: We'll see. In New York, his teammates were able to get off their own shot. Now in a different situation in Houston, will he be able to help the guys that don't or can't necessarily get their own shot? If he does that, he can be very good. A recent example of that is what we saw Steve Nash do in Phoenix last season.

NBA.com: You played under one of the greatest coaches in NBA history in Red Auerbach. Who are some of the coaches you admire today?

Russell: In football, Bill Belichick's attitude is, win with what you have. The coaches I watch over the season are the ones who maximize the most with what they. To me, that's a criteria. I thought Scott Brooks did a great job in Oklahoma City and same with Erik Spoelstra in Miami.

Red Auerbach coached in the NBA for 20 years and he was named NBA Coach of the Year only once and that was in his last year. And he announced he was retiring from coaching before the season started. So, the writers voted him Coach of the Year and that was nowhere close to being his best year.

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