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Packed with facts and action, this is a book young basketball fans will reach for again and again — and because it comes from Matt Christopher, young readers know they’re getting the best sports writing on the shelf.
Copyright © 2009 by Matt Christopher Royalties, Inc.
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Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
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First eBook Edition: October 2009
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Text written by Stephanie Peters
MAY 5, 1957
The Rookie Blocks the Shot
Bill Russell was the first, and arguably greatest, master of the blocked shot. In the course of his NBA career, the Boston Celtics center denied hundreds of opponents with a quick and powerful flick of his hand. But one block, like Russell himself, stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Russell joined the Celtics in December of 1956. He was brought to the team by a feisty, cigar-chomping coach named Red Auerbach. Auerbach had put together a dynamic team that included point guard Bob Cousy, still considered by many to be the best playmaker ever, as well as future Hall of Famers Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey, and Jim Loscutoff.
But before Russell came on board, Auerbach felt that his team lacked some crucial element, something that would vault the Celtics from good to great. Then he saw Bill Russell play and knew he'd found what was missing: defense!
Today, defensive tactics such as blocking shots and rebounding are just a part of the game. But back then, no one bothered to put much thought into defense. No one but Russell, that is.
Russell was a self-taught student of basketball defense. He studied an opponent's offensive style — where on the floor a player liked to shoot from, what kind of shot he liked to take, and how he took it. Then he used that knowledge, plus his speed, height, and agility, to put himself between the shooter and the basket, to deflect the shot away from the mark, and to send the ball into the waiting hands of his own teammate.
"Defense is an action, not a reaction," Russell said years later. "Great defense attacks an opponent's offense versus reacting to it."
It was a simple enough concept, but as Russell once commented, "I knew, absolutely, that ninety-nine percent of people watching me play had no idea what I was doing."
But Russell knew what he was doing, and exactly why he was doing it. He believed that games were won by the defense, and that championships were won when the whole team worked together to build a defense equal in strength to its offense.
He put his concept into action during his debut game on December 22, 1956. The Celtics were playing the St. Louis Hawks for the fourth time that season. Boston had won the three previous games, but the scores had been close. That night's score was also close, with Boston putting up 95 points and St. Louis 93.
But the tables might very well have been turned if not for Bill Russell. He came off the bench midway through the game. Offensively, he wasn't a threat; in the twenty-one minutes he was on the court, he scored just six points. Defensively, however, he ripped down 16 rebounds. More importantly, he blocked three shots attempted by the Hawks' star forward-center, Bob Pettit, late in the fourth quarter.
That was no easy task, for Pettit was a scoring machine who would later become the first player in history to reach the 20,000-point mark. But that night, he was the first player to feel the effects of Russell's mighty defense. He wasn't the last.
As the season wore on, Russell denied countless points. No one knows exactly how many, because at the time blocks were not recorded in the statistics—proof enough that few people considered them important! But by routinely preventing points and chalking up numbers in the rebound column, Russell helped the Celtics to a league-high regular season record of 44 wins and 28 losses.
Boston sweetened their win numbers in the postseason by sweeping the Syracuse Nationals in three straight games in the playoff semifinals. They advanced to the championship round, where they faced the Hawks.
The Hawks were coming off a five-game postseason winning streak. They continued that streak by beating the Celtics 125–123 in the first game of the Finals. That match went into double overtime. It might have gone on to an unprecedented third overtime had not Atlanta's Jack Coleman sunk a long bomb just as the clock ran out.
Boston roared back the next night, however, with a score of 119–99. That victory was thanks in large part to Bill Russell, who held Bob Pettit to just eleven points.
The series moved to St. Louis for game three. The two teams battled furiously, each hoping to break the tie in their favor. In the final minutes, the score was knotted at 98 apiece. Then Pettit got the ball and launched a jump shot. The ball hit cleanly—and the game ended with a score of 100–98.
Pettit was his team's high scorer again the next game, with a total of thirty-three points. But the Celtics' star guard, Bob Cousy, matched him almost point for point, and when his Boston teammates drained more total baskets than Pettit's, the Celtics had another mark in their "win" column. They added another before their adoring hometown fans in Boston to go ahead in the series three games to two. One more victory, and the Celtics would be crowned the NBA champs.
The win didn't come the following game, however. The Finals were back in St. Louis for game six. The last thing the Hawks wanted was to fall short in front of their fans. So they threw everything they had at the Celtics.
Boston fought back with just as much ferocity. As the minutes ticked by, the score seesawed back and forth between the evenly matched teams. Then, with twelve seconds left to play and the score tied at 94 apiece, Cousy came to the foul line. He bounced the ball, took aim, shot — and missed!
With one chance to pull ahead for the win, the Hawks got the ball to Pettit. Pettit unleashed a shot a split second before the buzzer sounded. As the ball arced gracefully through the air, the Hawks and their fans held their breath. The Celtics, meanwhile, willed the ball to veer off course.
It didn't. When it passed cleanly through the net, the Hawks had another win in their pockets. St. Louis fans went wild, the Hawks celebrated — and the Celtics trudged to the locker room to lick their wounds and prepare for the final and decisive seventh game.
The Boston Garden was teeming with Celtics fans the night of game seven. Those who couldn't be there in person listened to the play-by-play on the radio, given by the Celtics' new announcer, Johnny Most, whose gravelly voice and excited commentary would soon become legendary.
Boston took control early in the game but couldn't hold the lead. The first quarter ended with the score 28–26 in favor of St. Louis. The Celtics raced ahead at the start of the second only to falter as the half wound down.
Boston struggled to hold their advantage after halftime. Then, as the final minutes clicked by, the Hawks swooped down and stole the lead. With two minutes left, St. Louis jumped up by four. Boston clawed its way back, however, sinking three free throws to come within one. Still…
Tick, tick, tick! Time was running out. The Celtics had possession. They launched an attack, hoping to add two with a Cousy-to-Russell basket.
But Russell's shot attempt failed. His forward momentum propelled him over the baseline and out-of-bounds, leaving the remaining four Celtics to fight the Hawks for the rebound.
The Hawks came down with the ball and quickly fed an outlet pass to Jack Coleman—the same player who had hit the game-winning double-overtime shot in game one. Coleman stood alone at midcourt. The moment the ball hit his hands, he took off for the basket.
What happened next was, in the words of teammate Bob Cousy, "the most incredible physical act I've ever seen on a basketball floor."
Bill Russell took off running from behind the baseline like he'd been shot out of a cannon. His strides were so long and his pace was so quick that he covered ninety-four yards of court to arrive at the hoop at the exact moment Coleman went up for his layup! And then…
WHAP! He knocked the ball away!
"Blocked by Russell! Blocked by Russell! He came from nowhere!" Johnny Most screamed, his voice raw with emotion.
Russell didn't just block the ball, however — he controlled it. And then he turned and dribbled it madly toward the other end. Seconds later, he scored! And when Cousy drained a free throw, Boston had a two-point lead!
Yet, unbelievably, they couldn't keep it. Pettit was fouled going up for a shot and sank both free throws to send the game into overtime. The score was still tied at the end of those minutes, forcing a second overtime.
It had been a long, exhausting, and emotionally draining match for both teams. But all games come to an end at some point, with one team the winner and one the loser. This time, it was the Boston Celtics who emerged triumphant to win their firstever NBA championship, 125–123.
The victory had been a team effort, of course, but everyone agreed that Bill Russell's court-length charge had given the Celtics the chance they needed to win. If he hadn't made that monumental effort to deny Coleman those two points, the Hawks might very easily have won. Russell had also helped by crashing the boards for a rookie record of 32 rebounds, bringing his Finals average to 22.9 for the series.
How did the Celtics reward their rookie center, the man who, in the words of Coach Auerbach, "single-handedly revolutionized this game simply because he made defense so important"? In a jubilant display of team spirit, they shaved his beard in the locker room!
- On Sale
- Oct 1, 2009
- Page Count
- 144 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers