Jerry and Bill
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A candid conversation between two of the most storied players to ever grace The Finals stage
Jerry West a Celtic? Bill Russell a Laker? Believe it or not, both scenarios almost became reality and those are just a couple of nuggets revealed when these two basketball icons recently got together to reminisce about The Finals exclusively for the 2013 The Finals Commemorative Program.
Six times in the 1960s the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers met in The Finals with three of those matchups climaxing in epic Game 7 battles. The fierce competitive rivalry on the court was certainly not indicative off the court as Russell and West remain close friends, with their friendship dating back to the early '60s. Like all close friends, they are prone to disagreements from time to time.
Ask West about those memorable '60s Celtics-Lakers Finals matchups and he'll concede Boston had superior teams all those years except in 1969. That was the year the Lakers (finally) should have unleashed the Celtic stranglehold. West maintains to this day that the 1969 Lakers were better than the Celtics.
Russell's response? [insert cackle here]
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Did the preparation differ for you from the regular season versus the playoffs and The Finals?
WEST: I think there was a heightened expectation during the game. Obviously, there's much more preparation into the team that you're playing because you see them every night. It's not like the regular season. You see a team once or twice a month, whatever it's going to be. There is a difference and I think there's a unique difference in the approach that the players take. You certainly can concentrate on your opponent; what they try to do and what you're going to do to try to counteract some things that they do. Defensively, there's certain emphasis on trying to inhibit certain things that they do, but, all in all, it's a real special time of year. Not only for the players, but, I think, for the fans because they understand that the season is near the end and, more importantly, they're rooting for their respective team to win.
RUSSELL: Well, yeah. Usually, it's at least two or three different teams that you're gonna have to play and you prepare for the first one, but, when you have a chance, you prepare for the second one.
See, we [Celtics] had a different attitude. We expected to win so we would project how to go all the way through the playoffs and who we were going to play, but we never practiced what we were doing wrong. We always practiced what we did right and that's the game we tried to play: Don't dwell on your mistakes. You dwell on trying to do what you do best.
Were there any specific rituals or superstitions that you'd adhere to in terms of game preparation during the playoffs?
RUSSELL: Yeah. If you lose, you get to go home.
WEST: Well you didn't practice that, Bill.
RUSSELL: [laughs] No, he said superstition.
WEST: Oh. Well, you didn't know much about that superstition did you? No, I think everyone has their own preparation kind of things that you...
RUSSELL: Well, Red [Auerbach] used to say to us, "You guys think you're good? But I don't think you're as good as you think you are and, if you lose, I'm gonna break this team up. Send all you guys back to..."--where was it? There was one team that was the armpit of the league...Rochester!--"We're gonna send you all back to Rochester."
What we worked on mostly was the timing. So, we might do one single thing for two hours; running a play back and forth to make sure that everybody on the team understood how important the timing was because all of our plays, all five guys were involved in every play and so you can't just stand around and watch while the other guys do their thing, so you have to have timing when you move or don't move.
Bill, there were stories about you throwing up before a game.
RUSSELL: That was every game. That was exhibition games before the season. So, the playoffs were just more of the same. You try to do in the playoffs what you did best in the regular season and Red's attitude was: "To hell with them. We're gonna do what we're gonna do." And that's the way we practiced.
Jerry, how about you, personally? What did you do in personal preparation during the playoffs to get yourself really focused? How were you in the locker room?
WEST: Well, I think we all have a different way. I was very much like Bill in the sense that a lot of adrenaline running through your body. There were times where you would get sick. You're sitting there so anxious to play and get out there and compete that it was heightened during the playoffs because you knew that, as Bill mentioned, there were a lot of different things that you had to do to get yourself ready to play in preparation for the team; trying to do things that were important for you to be able to succeed during that time of year, but, as I say, I had numerous superstitions, but I had them throughout my whole life.
I always drove to the game the same way. I ate at the same time. I'd chew half a stick of gum and put it on one side of the locker [Russell laughs]. At halftime, I'd chew another half a stick of gum and I put it on the other side of the locker. If there would have been a 50-car wreck, I would have gone the same way to the game, but, again, I had a very, very distinct routine that I had all the time and I was superstitious in the sense that to me it made it more, it made me feel like I had done everything personally that I could do to be able to have myself ready to play a game, but the most important thing, and I think Bill brought it up, it wasn't about one or two players, it was about a lot of people being in sync and trying to accomplish something that everyone wants to do.
Bill mentioned something very unique and I wonder what would have happened if he would have lost a few of those championship games. Would he have thought the other team was not good enough to beat us? That's a wonderful attitude to have and I think because of their success it was easy to do that.
I always respected whoever we were playing. Regardless of if they were the worst team in the League. And Bill mentioned something that I think was really unique, too. I cared whether we won exhibition games, obviously, they're preseason games now, but I cared very much where I didn't want to lose a game and I think it's something that certain athletes have ingrained in them and I think they're blessed to be brought up that way.
It's a gift to be able to want to compete every day where some people can't get themselves to act up for some games at all. It was easy for me. I know it was easy for Bill because I heard him talk about it many times.
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The Lakers-Celtics Finals matchups were incredibly intense during the '60s, but there was also a great sense of admiration and respect that you had for each other. What was the extent of the friendship off the court? Did it even exist?
RUSSELL: Well, consider this. When I was a young guy in The Finals, my rookie year we played the Hawks. I was the only black guy on the Celtics and there were no black guys on the Hawks. So, I always laugh about the fact, it's almost surreal, that when we played the Hawks, I was only black guy in the building.
So, I was like a big brother to the black guys that came after me. You know, because the few black guys in the League treated me that way when I came in and so when Jerry was a rookie with the Lakers, they moved that year from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. One of my dear friends in my life was Elgin Baylor, and Jerry and Elgin were joined together at birth [laughs], so if you saw one, you saw the other one. They developed a real unique friendship in that we were all in the same place going after the same thing and I never felt any animosity towards players on other teams unless they earned it.
WEST: Some of them did, Bill, by the way.
RUSSELL: Yeah, some of them did. They had to. One of your teammates, remember?
WEST: Yeah, I sure do. [Russell laughs]
RUSSELL: There was a kinship that I was proud of, that Jerry West is one of my lifelong friends and we played The Finals and I used to hate playing against him.
We had a play where I would go to the top of the key and his man would cut to the basket and he'd always be, Jerry would appear to be, a step and a half behind him and so Jerry would take three steps and he'd throw his hands up and I hit him on the hand so many times [laughs]. I hated that. I remember that play right now. What, 50 years later?
Jerry, when did you first get to know Bill?
WEST: I was so young and everything was so new to me and growing up in a real small community and not being exposed to anything that Bill was; I'm really talking about some of the social issues that Bill faced, OK? He probably was a player that, I hate to tell him 'cause he's here, there was one picture of him that I think that stands above all, about what he stood for. It's a pose of him standing at midcourt with his left hand on his hip and it's almost like a king looking over his fiefdom, OK?
I had the greatest respect for Bill as a player and all of the Boston players and many of them I did not want to play against. I didn't like them, but I had the ultimate respect for him and also for the Celtics, but it was a uniquely different time for all of us then; uniquely different. We were kind of pioneers in so many ways and, as he mentioned, Elgin Baylor was...I was like his puppy dog. I was like some guy who followed him around on a chain 'cause I learned so much from him.
I loved him like a brother and when you're with someone like him who respects you. He kids you. He makes you feel welcome and you admire his skill so much and you admire his competitive ability so much, it just makes it so uniquely different for me.
I saw this League start to grow and I saw it start to grow with players the caliber of Bill Russell and I saw the change in the League with the tremendous black players that we had, but, more importantly, I think the thing that's so uniquely different than today, all of those players went to school for four years and we were all different. I think we all knew how to take care of ourselves a little bit better. We all were, I think, maybe a little bit more socially advanced. I don't know if I'd ever gotten to that point in my life, but we were socially more advanced in a sense that we knew how to live with each other. We knew the difference in each other and respected those differences.
And one of the things Bill brought up was, he was the first black player on the floor with all white players out there. I remember at times, in certain cities we'd go into and I always had a black roommate and we'd eat in our hotel room sometimes because there were certain places you couldn't go eat. I think that that was something that maybe brought the players closer together, but more importantly brought a deeper bond than some of the players have today.
Six times in the 1960s the Celtics and Lakers met in the Finals, and three of them ended up in Game 7. Jerry, why do you think the Celtics prevailed in those Game 7s?
WEST: Well most of the time, I thought they were better. I thought there was two times, one time in particular, that I didn't think they were better, but again at the end, they proved to be the better team. They [Celtics] had a unique group, too. They were close together. Obviously, Bill was the leader of the pack and I think when you have someone like him who had accomplished so much, not only as a collegiate player but his record as an NBA player was really unique. But there was one time I really thought we were a better team, and to this day I don't deny, and--no disrespect to you Bill--we were better than you and we didn't prove it.
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WEST: That was 1969 I believe. [Russell laughs] Don't you laugh you!
RUSSELL: Hey Jerry.
WEST: Yes sir?
RUSSELL: You know what? I thought that was also true.
WEST: Well, but we didn't win.
RUSSELL: But I'm going to tell you what happened.
WEST: I know what happened. You be quiet. Let me finish my thought, OK? [Russell laughs]. You have that laugh of yours, I hate that cackle...[Russell laughs]...but it's also what I love about you, man.
That [1969 Finals] was probably the most disappointing and at the time, maybe I was right at the height of my career, I really honestly wanted to walk away from the game, I didn't want to play anymore. It was just so painful, you know, to play as well as you could play, see the effort that your teammates put in, and it almost got to the point where I thought it was fatalistic. That one proved to me that it's not always the best team who wins, it's the team that's most prepared, most determined and obviously we weren't as prepared or determined as they were because they won. It was the low point of my career.
RUSSELL: I'm going to tell you something, Jerry. First of all, we went into every series, no matter who the team is, accepting the fact that to be here this date, they were good. And we had to count on them being good, because, you know that if you play against a dumb player, most of the time it's not going to work because they don't act like they're supposed to.
When we got to you guys before the seventh game, I told my team, I said I never talked to you guys like this before but tonight the Lakers cannot win. And I said if they played the best game any Laker team in the history of this franchise played, they would still lose. And so my guys looked at me like I was really crazy and I just told them what my thinking was, that they were a great team, a real great team. But, now this is the seventh game, on the road, when we played this team and we learned how to play against them and they knew how to play against us.
So, I said, one of the reasons they played so good, they're the best halfcourt offense team I've ever seen. So, we're not going to play halfcourt offense tonight. I said, first of all, Jerry, who is their best defensive player, has a hamstring pull so he's slowed down. It's physically impossible for him to be any faster because he was injured. All the other players were slow but they were good in halfcourt because you don't have to run in bursts. I said, I have four greyhounds on my team, [John] Havlicek, Sam Jones, [Larry] Siegfried and myself. So we could outrun our counterparts, especially if Jerry's injured.
The key to playing them [Lakers] in this game is you're always told that in the playoffs, you can't fast break because the good teams won't let you fast break. I said the key to fast break is defensive rebounding and outlet passing. I said I am the best ever [at] those two things. So tonight...we know they're good in halfcourt defense, excellent basketball team, but tonight we're going to find out how they are in track and field. And so, we just ran them. It was a different offense than they've seen in the other six games. And then what you have to do is, you get to know your opposition psychologically as well as physically and you have to know what bothers them. Well, Wilt [Chamberlain] backed up everybody defensively. Defensive rebounding and outlet passing, he didn't have a chance to get back on defense. So I was like, "Let's stay back this time." [laughs].
I always thought the Lakers were the great teams of all time and I think if it hadn't been for us, they would have won at least four championships. I had the ultimate respect for my opponents, and particularly Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, because they complemented each other so well that there's never been a combination like that since.
WEST: It was a unique time for basketball, it really was. Being the only team in Los Angeles when the Celtics and particularly when the Knicks came here it was a real treat for our fans out here. Most of them weren't rooting for us. They were rooting for them because of Bill's incredible legacy of winning, he helped establish basketball here in Los Angles as much as the early players here, Elgin, Wilt Chamberlain, myself, the ones getting the most publicity at that point in time.
When you played other teams, if you're smart enough and good enough, the one thing that teams are going to try to do is do something different every night. They had some guys that could run the court and obviously some of those players were very, very good players, but I think Bill underestimates one thing. His influence, and one of the things he said, in getting the ball out.
To me, the secret to running successfully is the outlet pass. And it's not always dribbling the ball down the floor, it's passing the ball. In that era, there's so much more throwing the ball ahead to players than dribbling the ball. It was always a pass ahead and someone would be a step or two ahead and then another pass. It wasn't someone going in and trying to shoot the ball; there was a lot more passing then. And that's the one thing I really admire about the Celtics team, their ability to pass the ball, they were willing passers, which tells you they were the right kind of teammates. They were obviously coached that way.
I think one of the remarkable things about Bill Russell is, I don't think we'll ever see a player who's a player-coach win a championship. I don't think that will ever happen again. He was someone I admired from a distance as an athlete but more importantly as a person.
I value his friendship, his relationship. When he calls me or I talk to him, it's like when we played, except I like him better now. [laughs]
Bill, is it true that after Game 7 of the '69 Finals, you and your Celtic teammates visited Jerry and the Lakers in their locker room?
RUSSELL: That was in Philadelphia following the '67 Eastern Conference Finals. The Sixers beat us in the Eastern Conference championship. We go to the locker room and the guys are starting to get ready to leave and I say, "Hold on. Everybody, wait. Let's go." And they asked, "Where are we going?" And I said, "We're going to the other locker room and congratulating them on beating us. They beat us, it wasn't like we lost. They beat us and I think we should show respect."
Playing the Lakers was always a full-time job, especially with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor before he hurt his knee. You were up against it, not because you were intimidated, but because they were very good. And I think the key to us being able to win was that we knew they were very good, so you don't go in there with a cavalier attitude. You were going to have to beat them, they were not going to lose to you.
Playing against the Lakers was a joy. My attitude has always been...I always welcome to the League young and diverse talent so that any time you go to an NBA game, you will see the best players in the world. And my attitude was, I want the best players in the world and I want to kick their butt.
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Jerry, is it true that the Lakers considered trading you to the Celtics for Bill Sharman?
WEST: I was the second player taken in the  draft. They had a really uniquely different draft than they do today. At that time, they had what I call branded players. People were aware of them because they had long distinguished college careers. The NBA, in its infancy, was able to draft players Ð territorial selections. Oscar Robertson was drafted by Cincinnati, obviously which made your franchise immediately because of his prominence as a collegiate player and also playing at the University of Cincinnati.
I was the second player taken in the draft and the Lakers were going to move to Los Angeles [from Minneapolis] and it happened when I was participating in the Olympic Games. There had been some talk that because Bill Sharman was a Southern California person, having played at the University of Southern California, that he would help make the Lakers a better franchise by being here in Los Angeles and I would go to Boston for him. That would have been something, Bill. And I had heard that on more than one occasion. And let me tell you something, Bill. It would have made your job easier. I promise you, and I love Bill Sharman.
RUSSELL: You don't think I know that? [laughs]
WEST: I really did think there was a chance that I would have ended up in Boston, and how ironic that would have been. How ironic.
RUSSELL: You know, Jerry. Red turned down a couple of deals like that where you have the better young player for the older player. And I would ask him, "What was your thinking? Why would you not do a deal like that?" And he said, "Getting a better player does not necessarily make you a better team."
WEST: Well, then he didn't know me then...he didn't know me that well.
RUSSELL: No, he did not. At that time, especially, the guys that came to the Celtics, they stayed until they retired. In fact, I was there 13 years and we only made one trade. Red believed in putting this team together. By the time he got there, Sam Jones was much better than Bill Sharman.
WEST: Yes, he was.
RUSSELL: But, he was never a starter until Sharman retired. Sam would substitute for Sharman and Sam was playing more minutes than Bill Sharman but he was playing his minutes coming off the bench. Sharman knew that as long as he was there, he would never lose his starting job.
I'm sure, Jerry, if you were to come to the Celtics we would have won 10 in a row! [laughs]
WEST: You would have won more than you did. You won too damn many anyway. [Russell and West laugh]
Bill, is it true that you wanted to play for the Lakers after meeting your idol George Mikan in high school?
RUSSELL: When I was in high school, I went to an exhibition game that the Lakers were playing in and I did not want to go into the Lakers locker room after the game. So, I waited outside and George Mikan came and walked over and started to talk to me about basketball. That was before I even got my first scholarship--my only scholarship. I was a player, a tall guy with no reputation, but Mikan talked to me like I was a No. 1 draft pick in the NBA. And I didn't even have a scholarship.
The last thing he said to me was, "When you finish college, you got to come play for the Lakers." And I'm thinking, "What makes you think I'm going to college?" [laughs]
RUSSELL: Hey, Jerry.
WEST: Yes, sir?
RUSSELL: I don't know if you remember but I was living in Los Angeles and for four years I had season tickets with the Lakers.
WEST: I do know that. And Mr. Cooke talked to you, right?
RUSSELL: And the Lakers were going to give Jerry an honor--I forgot what it was --and they called and asked if I would come to the game the night they were honoring Jerry West. I said, "No sweat. Just tell me what time to get there." So, I sat in the box with Jack Kent Cooke [former Lakers owner]. A few days later, Jack Kent Cooke calls me and tells me he's made a decision. I was going to come out of retirement and play for the Lakers.
WEST: He made your decision for you, that what's he did.
RUSSELL: I said to Jack, "Don't you have a center named Wilt Chamberlain?" He said, "Yeah." And I said, "How would he feel playing backup center?' [Russell and West laugh] And Jack Kent Cooke did not think that was funny. And I told him no and that I would only play for the Celtics. I was retired and I wouldn't play for anybody else.
I just thought that was funny.
WEST: I was aware of that myself. Also throughout our conversations over the years, one of the things you told me and I didn't think about was how was he [Wilt] going to feel about being a backup, which I thought that was pretty unique because you guys were great friends. I would have loved to have seen that in the locker room. "Russell and Wilt, you're coming off the bench ..." [loud laughter] I would have loved to have seen that one!
This story was originally published from the 2013 Official NBA Finals Program