The Kobe Question
Bill Simmons [ARCHIVE]
December 7, 2012
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I spent five hours with Bill Russell last week and thought of Kobe Bryant twice and only twice. One time, we were discussing a revelation from Russell's extraordinary biography, Second Wind, that Russell scouted the Celtics after joining them in 1956. Why would you scout your own teammates? What does that even mean? Russell wanted to play to their strengths and cover their weaknesses, which you can't do without figuring out exactly what those strengths and weaknesses were. So he studied them. He studied them during practices, shooting drills, scrimmages, even those rare moments when Red Auerbach rested him during games. He built a mental filing cabinet that stored everything they could and couldn't do, then determined how to boost them accordingly. It was HIS job to make THEM better. That's what he believed.

So when Russell mentioned a current star devouring his book and stealing that specific concept — then thanking Russell for the help — naturally, I expected the player to be LeBron James, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, maybe even Kevin Durant. Nope.

Kobe Bryant.

"Really?" I said incredulously.

And that's how I learned that basketball's greatest teammate ever held something of a soft spot for Kobe, someone who's battled more coworkers over the years than Chevy Chase. Russell enjoys his competitiveness, loves his work ethic, appreciates his respect for history, and over anything else, loves how he borrowed that scouting idea. No other player ever mentioned it to him. Just Kobe. Which didn't make sense to me. After all, Kobe regards his teammates the same way President Obama regards the Secret Service — these guys are here to serve and protect ME. Why would he need to scout them? What was I missing?

(Hold that thought. Please.)

Later in the day, we were discussing leadership and Russell revealed that he never criticized a teammate publicly or privately. Not once. Not during his entire 13-year career. What was the point? Everyone already knew Russell was their best player — why undermine their confidence by making them doubt themselves, or even worse, making them wonder if he believed in them? How was that productive? Russell believed, and still believes, that a basketball team only achieves its potential if everyone embraces their roles — you figure out what you have, split the responsibilities and you're off. The less thinking, the better. Early in their playing partnership, Russell asked Bob Cousy to find a specific spot every time an opponent attempted a shot — about 25 feet away from the basket, on the left or right side — so Russell could snare the rebound, whirl around and throw Cousy an outlet pass in one motion. After a few months, they didn't even think about it anymore. Shot, spot, rebound, release, go. In time, Tommy Heinsohn took off right before Russell grabbed that rebound, as did everyone else wearing white-and-green, and suddenly, the greatest fast break in basketball history was off and running.

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This Week: 1-0 Last Week: 7-9 Season: 99-89-4

But that would have failed unless everyone embraced their role, and that's the thing — everyone has to have a role. In Boston, Cousy ran the break, Heinsohn ran the lane and crashed the boards, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones and (later) John Havlicek handled the scoring, K.C. Jones and Satch Sanders handled the perimeter defense, and Russell handled everything else. So it was the "everything else" that varied from season to season, or even month to month — Russell assessed what his team needed and tailored his game accordingly. That's what made him Bill Russell.

OK, so how do you challenge your teammates without undermining them? Russell's book covers one example with an enlightening section on Sam Jones, one of the league's first great scoring guards but someone who feared the responsibility of being great every night. Sam couldn't handle the pressure; the burden was too big, like having the same term paper hanging over your head 100 times per year. That drove Russell crazy. Eventually, he learned to accept that they just weren't wired the same way. Sam didn't puke before every big game. He didn't measure his happiness by the success or failure of his basketball team. But he also happened to be a phenomenally gifted offensive player, someone who loved taking and making pressure shots. Sam's laconic demeanor worked against him being a legendary player, but for big moments? It was perfect. You could always go to Sam when it mattered. More often than not, Sam came through.

In the wrong hands, Sam's career might have gone a little differently. Russell always understood that Sam was Sam — he wasn't going to bleed basketball like Jerry West did, and he would never obsess over every play of every quarter like Oscar Robertson did. You are who you are. Bill Russell left Sam Jones alone.

So that was one example. Russell told the other story in Seattle last week, after I asked him how the aging Celtics won their last two titles without a real point guard. They didn't run the triangle offense like MJ's Bulls or Shaq's Lakers … so how? Russell joked about "making" Larry Siegfried play point guard after K.C. Jones (Cousy's successor) retired, then explained how it happened. Russell became Boston's player/coach before the 1966-67 season, which ended unhappily after Wilt's Sixers demolished the (seemingly) aging Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. During Game 5, Philly's crowd chanted "BOSTON IS DEAD! BOSTON IS DEAD!" Russell heard that chant ringing in his ears all summer. After winning eight straight titles, he wasn't ready to be buried as a basketball player yet. He also wasn't ready to blow up his team. So he asked Siegfried to replace K.C. Jones. Russell wasn't asking for a Cousy impression, just someone to dribble from Point A to Point B, call plays and start their offense. That's it.

Siegfried resisted. He wasn't a point guard. He didn't want the added responsibility, nor did he want to chase faster players around. Russell gently insisted. No, thanks, Larry Siegfried said. They had reached something of a stalemate. The modern solution would be dealing Siegfried away, but the Celtics never traded back then — they believed continuity was their single biggest advantage other than...
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