Q&A: Bill Russell on China, Yao, Kareem and the Babe
By John Hareas
He is the gameís ultimate champion and the quintessential team player. Everywhere Bill Russell went his teams won, whether it was back-to-back titles at the University of San Francisco, the U.S. Olympic Gold Medal team in 1956 or the 11 championships in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, no one epitomized the essence of team play better that the 6-10 center. The Hall of Famer along with other NBA legends, Bob Lanier, Bill Walton, Clyde Drexler along with Kenny Smith visited Shanghai and Beijing as part of the NBA China Games. The man who once revolutionized the game shared his thoughts on Yao Ming and the global growth of the sport.
How many times have you visited China?
Bill Russell: "This is my second visit. I was first here 20 years ago. I had a great time. I went all over the place. Itís fun to come back to see the difference and the progress but the one thing that has been constant -- the land is beautiful and the people are pretty -- so you canít help but have a good time."
In what capacity did you visit the first time?
Russell chats with Yao Ming (L) and Patrick Ewing (R).
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images
Russell: "I was writing a column for the Seattle Times and I came over with a real diverse group of writers, politicians and people who were working on a documentary and had a fascinating time. The columns that I wrote were diverse in subject matter and I think out of all of them, only three pertained to sports."
Are you surprised by the global growth of the game?
Russell: "No, Iím not surprised because when I was here 20 years ago, most of the local towns had teams. It wasnít nearly as widespread as it now, especially with television.
I think most Westerns to their own peril underestimate the dynamic in nature of the Chinese population. When they put their minds to it, as a nation, they can be pretty good, no matter what they try.
"During my last visit, I went to 30 towns and most of them had basketball teams and that was 20 years ago and you would expect with that many kids playing and with the population of this size that youíre going to start getting better and better."
Clinics over the years have contributed to the growth of the game. When did you first start teaching them?
Russell: "I first started teaching clinics in 1959 and I have done them in every continent since. Other coaches and teams participate and the game starts to mature worldwide."
Where does Yao Ming rank among todayís centers?
Russell: "Heís right there at the top with the best but his whole potential is ahead of him. We forget that heís just a kid."
Does his game remind you of any former great center?
Russell: "In terms of skills, he reminds me of Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. Heís not there yet but that who I think heís most like."
What impresses you the most about Yao?
Russell: "His intelligence, his sense of humor, his responsibility of being a star and his sense of well being."
Has he ever asked you for advice?
Russell: "Oh, yes, we have had numerous conversations and very little of it had to do with basketball. They primarily centered on the approach to basketball."
What long term impact do you think the NBA China Games will have on this country?
Russell: "I think itís going to be similar to Babe Ruth and baseball. Yao is a genuine hero and he does it so well. The kids want to play the same game heís playing. They donít necessarily want to be that tall or that good but they want to play the same game. So, thatís why in China now you have more than 200 million kids playing basketball."