Thanks to his father, Spencer Lund’s basketball loving soul belongs to Bill Russell, but at what cost?
Nothing drew the ire of my old man more than my childhood utterances extolling the statistics of Wilt Chamberlain. For many youngsters with ear-marked Basketball Almanacs (I grew up without the Internet, or even—heaven forbid—cable), Chamberlain represented a mythology that was impossible to overlook. He averaged 50 points a game over an entire season, he scored 100 points in a single NBA game, and he routinely came down with 30+ rebounds a game. How was this possible? I tried to wrap my head around the numbers and how they might have translated to the contemporary game that I was simultaneously watching on NBC Saturdays, but it was impossible for my adolescent mind to do so. After a time, though, Chamberlain’s stats quickly crumbled under the tutelage of my father and the enduring legacy of Bill Russell.
Favoring Russell over Chamberlain became an extension of my furthered maturation as an NBA fan; statistics no longer trumped the bottom line: winning. Slowly, the scoring brilliance of Chamberlain became secondary as holes in Wilt’s game cropped up. He couldn’t shoot free throws and refused the “Grandma” style of Rick Barry because it would look too silly. He didn’t try as hard on the defensive end because blocks weren’t a statistic people kept tracked of yet. Primarily, he didn’t win. BUT HE ONCE LED THE LEAGUE IN ASSISTS! Always, it would come back to Wilt’s other-worldly stats. Counteracting the statistical forces that led me to internally declare Wilt the GOAT as an 8 year old (remember this was before MJ claimed that distinction with such certitude—6 titles in 8 years—it’s become a sobriquet in recent years) there was a constant presence in my life that eventually instilled in me a code, or a way to look at the NBA, that thwarted my excited extrapolations from my 1991 NBA Basketball Almanac. Bill Russell was the way to play basketball if you wanted to win, and why else would you play? The practicality of the message gave it strength.
My father’s pithy comments deriding any hyperbolic claim I made about a contemporary player’s dominance centered on Russell as the epitome of not only basketball excellence, but excellence of any sort. My old man is not overt about anything, and he’s the furthest thing from gregarious—often as loathsome of socialization with strangers as Russell was with autographs—but when he did speak with passion, it often involved Bill Russell. My basketball pedagogue from childhood, Wilt, served as a lesson in what not to do, and that’s because Russell owned Chamberlain throughout his career. Chamberlain won only one time against Russell, and that was Russell’s first year as a player/coach. My father never let me forget that, and the knowledge has carried over into adulthood, sometimes to my detriment.
Russell was a leader and a champion. He succeeded in a way that felt right, too—once I’d been properly indoctrinated by my old man. Wilt was the opposite of Russell, and my father used the two of them to teach me about the right and wrong way to play basketball. Rather than offering them as the yin and yang of early NBA dominance, Russell was always right, and Chamberlain was always wrong.
As such, self-sacrifice for the good of the team always trumped individual ambitions and statistics; it was like growing up constantly hearing a soliloquy from Norman Dale, except it was my father. Russell was the centerpiece of this teaching philosophy, and it infected how I played basketball, but more importantly (since my NBA dreams were thwarted when it became clear I had a better chance of winning the lottery), it placed an Apollonian veneer over the basketball I watched growing up, and continue to watch today. The Russell lectures added order and a time signature to the free range chaos of the NBA’s jazz. They’re also at odds with today’s online NBA culture.
The NBA today is played at a frenetic pace not just on the court, but on the Internet as well. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and a host of online outlets have changed the way we view sports, but especially basketball. The NBA game is becoming a cultural lifestyle that fans can interact with online without ever watching an actual game. Having grown up under the influence of the Tao of Russell, I’ve fought this progression every step of the way because it seemed so opposed to the philosophy of basketball for basketball’s sake.
Additionally, the statistical selfishness of Chamberlain (he always pointed out that he never fouled out of a game, like this was some testament to his athleticism rather than a strategy to accumulate more points and rebounds) seems like it would be right at home in today’s web-heavy NBA. Hoopdata or Synergy can now pinpoint a player’s impact in quantitative fashion, and a host of writers salivate over points per possession and other barometers for success rather than watching games.
Aside from the ABPRmetrics and Sloan Conference at M.I.T providing a stats heavy outlet for Bill James enthusiasts, game recaps don’t do as well with the public as a funny photoshop of LeBron’s hairline or Durant’s funny Twitpic. The modern fan isn’t as concerned with who won the game, or how, because [insert player x] is unveiling his new shoe. The modern superstar isn’t defined in terms of wins and losses, but by popular Twitter consensus. LeBron is bad in the 4th quarter, Kobe is clutch, Kobe is actually not clutch. The mini-disagreements and arguments rage on sometimes at the expense of basketball. Lost in all this is simply winning and losing.
It’s enough to turn my father off of basketball almost completely (he still relishes a defensive battle with the Celtics aging three plus Rondo), but employing this old fashioned approach to the game of basketball means missing an integral component of the NBA discussion.
Growing up, I wanted to write about the NBA in the Times or Globe, not on the Internet. Twitter was a lark at first, and the blink-and-you-missed-it interactions from the same group of bloggers/writers/reporters has felt like a kinetic wasteland of discarded jokes and analysis, and I’m the Fisher King, forever impotent against this progression away from the actual games. As I trudge on, dipping my toes in Twitter and niche blogs with social media savvy writers, Russell’s glowering face comes to me. YouTube highlights of monstrous dunks, smack-it-in-the-second-row rejections, and hip 3-point celebrations still seem opposed to the tenets of Russell (especially the blocking), but I still blog ‘em because otherwise I’d be writing for an audience of one. I’m slowly adapting, just like I adapted to my father’s insistence that Chamberlain’s stats didn’t mean anything compared to Russell’s rings. But it’s an ongoing process with the Russell doctrine always popping up.
An NBA basketball game in 2012 still involves putting the ball in the hoop and trying to prevent the other team from doing the same. Everything ancillary to that feels like I’m upsetting my old man and Bill Russell. I’m attempting to catch up to the NBA’s online zeitgeist, or else I won’t be able to write about the NBA for a living. Sometimes I wish I could watch the game without knowing about Twitter timelines, funny .gifs, or live blogs instantaneously turning game developments into old news, but that’s not the world I inhabit. I have to think about those things, or else try and find another line of work.
And yet, the specter of Bill Russell in his playing days continues to watch every game with me, and that’s not such a bad thing. At least it’s not Chamberlain.