The Nature Of Winning

Bill Simmons’ latest column, here at Grantland, includes some interesting insight into Bill Russell. It’s not as though Simmons hasn’t tackled the subject before; read the chapter in “The Book of Basketball” in which he eviscerates the notion that Wilt Chamberlain was as good as Russell. But it always makes for fascinating reading. The latest passage:

“I spent five hours with Bill Russell last week . . . 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. . . .

“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.”

OK, so the column is really about Kobe Bryant, who Simmons then spends 30,000 words or so deconstructing. But the parts about Russell are the most interesting.

And it brings me back to a quote I have written about many times. A couple years ago, during an appearance in Vancouver, Russell said: “I was thought of as an unselfish player. That was absolutely, unequivocally untrue. I was completely self-absorbed. But I played a team game. If I can take my skills, my talent, my attitude, even my arrogance, and make my team the best there is, then my ego is satisfied.”

That, more than having great coaching or great players around him, is the reason Bill Russell won 11 NBA titles and two NCAA championships.

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