by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Even though it had nothing to do with a sudden curiosity about the Black Hills of South Dakota, we were nonetheless glad that Mount Rushmore was mentioned in mainline sports discussions over the past couple of weeks. After all, just hearing LeBron James and Steve Smith make reference to the storied national memorial in their recent TNT interview might prompt some young hoops fans to perhaps put down their cell phones, temporarily stop their texting and Twitter-ing, and take a moment to learn more about the four presidents whose images are carved into the granite face of the famous mountain.

Of course, the reference to Mount Rushmore in the LeBron-Smith TNT interview had little to do with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, or Teddy Roosevelt. Rather, it was used for illustrative purposes in a hoops-related question posed by Smith to LeBron, in which the Miami Heat star was asked which four all-time basketball greats would be carved on his "hoops version" of Rushmore. At that point, we knew the interview was not scripted, because LeBron, like most, struggled for a moment to come up with the proper four names in answer to a question to which there really is no correct response. Eventually, LeBron got around to naming three stars of the modern era--Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird--along with Oscar Robertson from a previous generation. Before, that is, reminding interviewer Smith that James intended for himself to be included on the hoops version of "Rushmore" when his career was complete.

There was nothing wrong with LeBron's answer, especially when the question was posed to him in such an impromptu fashion. LeBron could be expected to name the great NBA players of his youth, and pulling a name out of the hat from the past like Robertson, whose career ended nearly a decade before James was born, drew no serious arguments from the majority of hoop aficionados.

After all, Smith's question would figure to prompt a generational response from most, and James could not be expected to recite all of the great names from an era long before he existed. Which made his nod to Robertson all the more notable. LeBron was also not the first star to be asked to produce a list of all-time greats from his sport, in which answers are often linked to eras in which the interviewee is most familiar. We recall a different variation of Steve Smith's "Mount Rushmore" question when the late, great Wilt Chamberlain was once asked long ago to rate his all-time opponent team. Some were surprised when the Big Dipper included Rick Barry along with Bill Russell, Bob Pettit, Jerry West, and the "Big O" in his all-opponent five.

But, as long as we're on the "Mount Rushmore of Hoops" subject, we suggest there is one name, er, face, that simply must be carved into any granite cliff of basketball stars. In fact, for our TGS version, we might put the sculpture of this chap into slot number one to be carved on the cliff, and then figure out a way to rotate many other deserving candidates (and there are several, including LeBron) into the other three positions.

But any "Hoops Mount Rushmore" without an aforementioned member of Wilt's all-opponent team, Bill Russell, would not be a proper basketball monument at all.

Russell's greatness has never been in question, especially when viewed in the context of team sports. In fact, there may never have been a more dominant force when it comes to championships. Russell would have needed four hands to wear all of the rings his teams won at all levels of competition...a staggering 16 of them, including high school (two California state crowns at legendary McClymonds High in Oakland, with a teammate named Frank Robinson, who would go on to a HOF career in baseball), college (two at USF, where his Dons would also win 55 straight games to close his career, part of what would grow to a then NCAA-record 60-game win streak), Olympics (1956 Melbourne), and NBA (eleven titles in thirteen seasons with the Celtics; the final two of those championships as the player-coach!).

The NBA that Russell entered after the 1956 Olympics (which were held in December, delaying Russell joining the Celtics for the first couple of months of the 1956-57 season) was not far removed from its segregated days. Although preceded into the league by the likes of Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Sweetwater Clifton, Russell became the first true African-American superstar of the NBA. Russell took his role seriously, too, sensitive to the social issues of the day and not afraid to thrust himself into controversial matters, including the civil rights debate and eventually offering support for the proposed black boycott of the 1968 Olympics. Russell was also at the forefront at an important moment in the evolution of the NBA Players Association, one of several players prepared to strike before the 1964 All-Star game (the first to be televised nationally) unless certain basic allowances, such as pensions, athletic trainers, and improved travel conditions, were met. The owners would relent before tipoff. This sense of social responsibility, and activism, also set Russell apart from many peers, not only from his era of athletes, but also for generations to come.

Russell's impact on basketball, and society, was not lost on a contemporary, the great Jim Brown, who became a close friend of the man he simply called "Russ." In his storied biography, Out of Bounds, Brown took time from the considerable passages related to a record-setting football career, his days in Hollywood, and other chapters of his colorful life to also reflect on none other than Russell, while making sure to pay the highest compliments.

"What Russ had was brains up the yingyang," said Brown in Out of Bounds. "Russ understood the games of every Boston Celtic, what he could do to complement those games. He understood concepts and nuance and psychology. Bill understood (teammate) Sam Jones' psyche maybe better than Sam. Bill said Sam probably could have done anything he wanted to out there, but Sam didn't want to do too much. That would draw attention to him, and Sam thrived when he felt unburdened by expectation. By holding a little back, Sam found his optimum niche.

"His teammate Bill Russell also didn't care about personal fame. Russ used to say to me, 'We won the championships. The hell with the rest.' Russell was a basketball visionary: he understood team defense, its value, years before his peers or the press. At the very same time, he was the quintessential pragmatist: other guys would swat shots ten rows into the stands, the crowd would Oooh. Russ kept his blocks in bounds, gave the Celtics another possession. That's detail, and it's artistry.

"How do you argue with nine championships in ten seasons? You don't. No player in NBA history has made a larger contribution to winning titles than Bill Russell."

Brown's admiration for Russell extended far off of the athletic arena, to which he expounded further in Out of Bounds. "There isn't any theater in my relationship with Bill Russell," added Brown. "I don't trust a lot of people. I trust Russ with my life. Bill has been a brother to me.

"On one level, I wasn't sure what to make of Bill at first--I didn't know if his heart was in the struggle. Then he wrote that article about the city of Boston, what its racial malice made him and his family feel like. Boston is a dangerous city for blacks, and I knew then that Russ had special courage. As I got to know him, I saw that Bill loved being black, and hated discrimination. And he was willing to work for the freedom of black folks.

"Russ isn't a politician, if he thinks you're wrong he will say so. A lot of people attribute that to a lack of sensitivity. They've got it backwards. Russ is highly sensitive, that's why he doesn't let your words pass right by him: he's listening to you, and that's a rare art. As soon as a guy starts agreeing with everything I say, nodding his head like I'm Plato, I know he doesn't give a damn about me. Russell cares enough to tune in."

Brown also had some interesting observations on the rivalry (and differences) between Russell and Chamberlain, to which Brown was an up-close spectator.

"If you were a Celtics fans, you got to tune into a whole lot of winning, and some classic battles between Chamberlain and Russell," added Brown in Out of Bounds. "Did you know those guys were once buddies? They fell out after they met in a championship series. Bill wrote an article venting his frustration that Wilt had left the game with an injury, denying Russ the chance to win the title with Wilt on the floor. That's all it took. From that day on they were chilly."

(After the publishing of Out of Bounds, and before Chamberlain's passing in 1999, Wilt and Russell would reconcile and resume their friendship, which had fractureed after the 1969 NBA title series.)

"Wilt invites me to some of his parties and believe me, the man knows how to get loose," said Brown in one of the more illustrative chapters in Out of Bounds. "No matter where I see Wilt, he's always been kind. But if there's ever a black fundraiser, Wilt is one brother I never call. Wilt's idea of right-on sponsorship is women's volleyball. He lives a Hawaii, Beverly Hills, top-of-the-shelf life. Without going into my revolutionary spiel, I've always accepted that. Wilt is not a fraud. Wilt is Wilt. The guy is just different.

"I like Wilt, he's a friend, but I'm much tighter with Russ."

Brown's endorsement, gained from a unique perspective, aside, the Russell legacy still shines as brightly as it did when he retired from the NBA after the 1968-69 season. Which was one of the final two chapters of Russell as a player (when he also doubled as Celtics coach) in the 1967-68 and 1968-69 seasons that not only etch him first and foremost on any Mount Rushmore of Hoops, but differentiates the Celtics of that era from any other pro sports dynasty, certainly in our history of publishing TGS and arguably in US sports annals (though backers of the glory-day New York Yankees, as well as some fans of the Vince Lombardi-era Green Bay Packers, would make a spirited argument).

That's because the Celtics captured those last two titles when they probably weren't the best team in the league. Instead, what Russell's Boston knew how to do was win, the ultimate validation of greatness.

Indeed, there was a time when most believed the Celtics were finished with their Russell-led championship run in the mid '60s. After surviving a seven-game series with the Lakers to win their eighth straight NBA title in the 1965-66 season, coach Red Auerbach retired and handed the reins to Russell, who would serve as player-coach. But the Celtics were beginning to get a bit long in the tooth, with key cogs Russell, Sam and K.C. Jones then into their thirties. Stalwarts had also been peeling away in previous seasons, as the great Bob Cousy hung 'em up in 1963, and key cog Tommy Heinsohn had retired after the 1964-65 campaign. And there was an ominous challenge forming in the Eastern Conference of the day in the form of the Philadelphia 76ers, who for a short while usurped Boston as the powerhouse of the league.

Philly and Boston had been at each other's throats for a while in the '60s, though it was the Warriors franchise that was representing the City of Brotherly Love in the early part of the decade, with the Chamberlain as the focus. (We wrote of the 1961-62 Warriors, and the night Chamberlain scored 100 points, in an earlier featured story this season when we reviewed the highly-acclaimed Wilt 1962 book). When the Warriors moved to San Francisco for the 1962-63 season, Russell and Chamberlain did not see quite as much of one another, though in the NBA of the day (with only nine teams), there were still several Boston-San Francisco matchups during those years. Which would include the 1963-64 championship series, won by the Celtics in five games.

Chamberlain, however, would be dealt back to Philadelphia and the 76ers (who had moved from Syracuse following the Warriors' flight to the Bay Arena) in the middle of the 1964-65 season, immediately making the Sixers a serious threat within the East. Wilt's Philly would push the Celtics in a memorable 7-game conference finals series that season, one that Boston barely survived thanks to a last-second steal of an inbounds pass by John Havlicek ("Havlicek stole the ball!" as Celtics announcer Johnny Most would famously shout) to preserve a one-point win in the deciding game. Firmly established as a legitimate title threat, and the roster further fortified by North Carolina rookie forward Billy Cunningham, the Sixers would finish first in the regular-season portion of the Eastern Conference the following 1965-66 season by a game over the Celtics, only to be outdone again by Russell and Boston, 4-games-to-1, in the conference playoffs final.

But the end of the Celtic dynasty appeared imminent in the following 1966-67 campaign, when not even a 60-win Boston regular season (the Celts' third-best mark in the Russell era) could come close to the Sixers' record-setting 68-13 mark that would then rank as the NBA's all-time best. Chamberlain finally had the supporting cast surrounding him to get the best of Russell and the Celtics after losing in five previous playoff matchups vs. Boston. Regarded as perhaps the best-ever pro basketball team up to that point, 1966-67 Philly rolled past Boston in five games to win the East before defeating Wilt's old San Francisco Warriors, paced by the aforementioned Rick Barry and Chamberlain's old teammate Nate Thurmond, in the championship series 4-games-to-2 to win the title.

The handwriting seemed to be on the wall for Boston, which had finally appeared to meet its match. The Sixers had assumed the role of NBA powerhouse. More of the same was predicted for the following 1967-68 season, when there seemed no good reason to back any side except Wilt's 76ers to win the crown. Philly appeared to have no weaknesses, welcoming back almost the entirety of its title-winning and record-setting side from the previous season.

The coach, Alex Hannum, had been able to not only co-exist with the sometimes-difficult Chamberlain (whom Hannum also mentored in San Francisco when the Warriors reached the 1964 finals), but also had a complete roster at his disposal. The super-human Wilt, playing nearly 48 minutes every night, was still the dominant force in the league. The three forwards--Chet Walker, Luke Jackson and the aforementioned Billy Cunningham--supplied all of the required corner talents. The backcourt was so crowded that local hero Matty Guokas, who starred in college at in-town St. Joe's and who as a rookie had played a key role in the 76ers' 1966-67 playoff success, was going to have difficulty getting on the court, because Bill Melchionni was back from the Army and vet Larry Costello, at 36, had made a quick recovery from knee surgery. Wally (subsequently "Wali") Jones became a force in Costello's absence and demanded minutes, too, and along with Cunningham seemed destined to become among the league's next stars. Guard Hal Greer was aging at 31 but could still find the picks and the basket. The 76ers lost their first draft choice, Craig Raymond, to the Italian pro league (Raymond would eventually surface as a serviceable pivot in the ABA), but any rookie help would be minimal and none was expected to be needed. This was as complete and dominating a roster as the NBA had ever seen. With Wilt setting up his teammates and dominating the opposition, the Philly machine was expected to run as efficiently as it did in the previous 1966-67 title season.

The Sixers were obviously going to present quite a hurdle for the Celtics. What nobody realized at the time was that the final act of the Russell/Boston NBA title drama still had a couple of memorable scenes left to play.

(Part II of "Save This Spot on the Mount Rushmore of Hoops" will appear in next weekend's TGS Hoops No. 29 issue. The midweek issue No. 28, available Monday night, will preview the first of the college conference tournaments, and those from the lower echelons of Division I, which begin later next week.)

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