Bill Russell and the Well-Played Game

by Bernard De Koven on June 16, 1999

The following passage is from former Celtics great Bill Russell, in his book: Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, Random House, 1979, pp 155-158. In it, he describes the transcendant experience that I call “The Well-Played Game.

Bill RussellEvery so often a Celtic game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical. That feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened I could feel my play rise to a new level. It came rarely, and would last anywhere from five minutes to a whole quarter or more. Three or four plays were not enough to get it going. It would surround not only me and the other Celtics but also the players on the other team, and even the referees. To me, the key was that both teams had to be playing at their peaks, and they had to be competitive. The Celtics could not do it alone. I remember the fifth and final game of the 1965 championship series, when we opened the fourth quarter ahead of the Lakers by sixteen points, playing beautifully together, and then we simply took off into unknown peaks and ran off twenty straight points to go up by thirty-six points, and astounding margin for a championship series. We were on fire, intimidating, making shots, running the break, and the Lakers just couldn’t score. As much as I wanted to win that championship, I remember being disappointed that the Lakers were not playing better. We were playing well enough to attain that special level, but we couldn’t do it without them.

That mystical feeling usually came with better teams in the league that were challenging us for the championship. Over the years that the Celtics were consistently good, our rivals would change, as teams would come up to challenge and then fall off again. First it was the Hawks, then the Lakers, Royals, Warriors, 76ers and then the Lakers again, with the Nicks beginning to move. They were the teams good enough to reach that level with us some nights. It never started with a hot streak by a single player, or with a breakdown of one team’s defense. It usually began when three or four of the ten guys on the floor would heat up; they would be the catalysts, and they were almost always the stars in the league. If we were playing the Lakers, for example, West and Baylor and Cousy or Sam and I would be enough. The feeling would spread to the other guys, and we’d all levitate. And then the game would just take off, and there’d be a natural ebb and flow that reminded you of how rhythmic and musical basketball is supposed to be. I’d find myself thinking, “This is it. I want this to keep going,” and I’d actually be rooting for the other team. When their players made spectacular moves, I wanted their shots to go in the bucket. That’s how pumped up I’d be. I’d be out there talking to the other Celtics, encouraging them and pushing myself harder, but at the same time part of me would be pulling for the other players too.

At that special level all sorts of odd things happened. The game would be in a white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive — which is a miracle in itself. I’d be putting out the maximum effort, straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The game would move so quickly that every fake, cut and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. Even before the other team brought the ball in bounds, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teammates, “It’s coming there!” — except that I knew everything would change if it did. My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart but also all the opposing players, and they knew me. There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine.

But these spells were fragile. An injury would break them, and so would a couple of bad plays or a bad call by a referee. Once a referee broke a run by making a bad call in my favor, which so irritated me that I protested it as I stood at the foul line to take my free throws. “You know it was a bad call, ref,” I said wearily. He looked at me as if I was crazy, and then got so angry that I never again protested a call unless it went against me. Still, I always suffered a letdown when one of those spells died, because I never knew how to bring them back; all I could do was keep playing my best and hope. They were sweet when they came, and the hope that one would come was one of my strongest motivations for walking out there.

Sometimes the feeling would last all the way to the end of the game, and when that happened I never cared who won. I can honestly say that those few times were the only ones when I did not care. I don’t mean that I was a good sport about it — that I’d played my best and had nothing to be ashamed of. On the five or ten occasions when the game ended at that special level, I literally did not care who had won. If we lost, I’d still be as free and as high as a sky hawk. But I had to be quiet about it. At times I’d hint around to the other players about this feeling, but I never talked about it much, least of all to the other Celtics. I felt a little weird about it, and quite private. Besides, I couldn’t let on to my teammates that it was ever all right to lose; I had too much of an influence on the team. We were the Celtics, and our reason for being was to win championships, so I had to keep those private feelings to myself. It was good I did; if I’d tried to explain, I’d never have gotten past the first two sentences. Anything I confided would sound too awkward and sincere for Celtic tastes, and I could just hear Satch and Nelson. The next time we lost an ordinary game they’d have been cackling, “That’s all right, Russ. It don’t matter that we lost, because we had that special feeling out there tonight. Yeah, it felt real special.”

Reprinted by agreement with Mr. Russell. Not to be copied or duplicated. Please use this URL only: http://www.deepfun.com/fun/1999/06/bill-russell/


A Playful Path photoA playful path is the shortest road to happiness.
Visit aplayfulpath.com. Free ebook!

Leave a Comment

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

Previous post:

Next post: