Bill Russell — He could easily have been ours
He didn’t have enough fingers for all his championship rings – he was one shy.
Bill Russell, who passed at 88 last week, won 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics — nine as a player – and two as player/coach.
And those titles could have easily been ours.
With the New York Knicks.
It’s a fact – and Spencer Ross, the man who sat behind the microphone calling games for the Knicks – and for one season with the Celtics – has the story.
The true story.
“I saw Russell play his second NBA game,” Ross said. “It was in the first game of the traditional Tuesday night NBA doubleheader at Madison Square Garden. He scored something like 16 points and pulled down 18 rebounds.”
Ross, the New Utrecht grad who earned a basketball scholarship to Florida State said he turned to his friends at the time and said, “This guy with the Celtics is something special; they’re gonna win the title this year.”
Some were skeptical.
Ross was correct.
If you’re wondering, well the 6-10 Russell finished his NBA career as the No. 2 rebounder in NBA history, behind his longtime rival Wilt Chamberlain – who had three inches on him.
Russell pulled down 21,620 rebounds – an average of 22.5 per-game – with a single-game high of 51 against the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers) in 1960.
Back to the past.
Russell missed the start of that 1959-60 season. That season was also the first for teammate Tommy Heinsohn.
Heinsohn was named Rookie of the Year.
“Most think of Russell as a No. 1 draft choice,” Ross says. “They’re wrong. It was SiHugo Green, a talented backcourt player from Duquesne and Boys High. He did not have a great career.”
Here’s the story – the one that could have made Bill Russell a New York Knickerbocker.
“The Rochester Royals had that first draft pick,” Ross said. “Cash-strapped, Lester Harrison, who owned and coached the Royals knew he couldn’t afford Russell.”
In fact, it has been reported Harrison was unwilling to pay Russell the $25,000 signing bonus he requested.
The late Fuzzy Levane – who had played for the Royals and later coached the Knicks – and a friend of Spencer Ross — was asked by Harrison if he could get the Knicks involved.
Fuzzy told him he’d take the Royals offer to the Knicks, according to Ross.
The Royals wanted the Knicks’ No. 1 draft choice, center Walter Dukes and $50,000.
Ned Irish, who ran the Knicks at the time balked at the $50,000.
“No way,” Irish said, Ross remembered.
While the Royals couldn’t find a way to figure it out, Red Auerbach – the Celtics coach – and a grad of Brooklyn’s Eastern District High School – did.
The St. Louis Hawks, who owned the second pick, drafted Russell but were vying for Celtics center Ed McCauley, a six-time NBA All-Star who had roots in St. Louis. Auerbach agreed to trade McCauley, who had previously asked to be traded to St. Louis in order to be with his sick son, if the Hawks gave up on Russell.
Ben Kerner, then owner of the Hawks called Auerbach later and demanded more in the trade. In addition to McCauley, who was the Celtics’ premier player at the time, he wanted Cliff Hagan, who had been serving in the military for three years and had not yet played for the Celtics.
After much debate, Auerbach agreed to give up Hagan and the Hawks made the trade.
With the Royals ready to take Green, that gave the St. Louis Hawks the number one draft choice.
“Remember this was 1956, and no way would a city like St. Louis want to support a ‘Negro’ player,” he said. “These were different times.”
So, the deal was made. The draft choice was traded – Russell – to the Celtics for McCauley and Boston’s No. 1 turned out to be the great Cliff Hagan – another Hall of Famer.
In fact, that moved helped the Hawks win the NBA title in Russell’s second season.
“That was a pretty great St. Louis team,” Ross said. “Three Hall of Fame players – the iconic Bob Pettit, McCauley and Hagan.”
But, as Ross laments, “If you’re a Knicks fan, $50,000 would have made Bill Russell a New York Knickerbocker.
He was a five-time NBA MVP; won 11 NBA championships, a 12-time All-Star, an Olympic Gold Medalist (1956) – and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975.
Boston honored Russell in 2013 with a bronze statue in City Hall Plaza.
Just think – it could have – should have – been here.
Andy Furman is a Fox Sports Radio national talk show host. Previously, he was a scholastic sports columnist for the Brooklyn Eagle. He may be reached at: [email protected] Twitter: @AndyFurmanFSR
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