Looking ahead, Russell talks of pro basketball's playoffs
Los Angeles — When that high cackle of laughter comes tumbling out of your TV set during a National Basketball Association Game of the Week, its voice box can belong to only one man, William Felton Russell, the CBS color commentator and analyst.
The Boston Celtics won 11 world championships in 13 years when Russell was their starting center. His reserve tank often allowed Coach Red Auerbach the luxury of playing him 48 minutes a game night after night.
If anyone knows what it takes to win in the NBA playoffs it's Russell. When he speaks about the NBA's ''second season,'' as he agreed to do with me recently , people listen. So with an eye toward the start of the playoffs two months hence, Russell launched forth.
''The thing most people don't understand about the playoffs is that they are nothing like the regular season,'' Bill explained. ''During the regular season you almost never play the same team twice in a row. One game follows another so quickly on the schedule that there is no time to get ready for each new opponent. You fly into a city; you play the game that night; and then you fly out again. In between you get whatever sleep you can.
''What a best-of-five or best-of-seven playoff series does for a team is give it the chance to concentrate on its opponent. You sit down together and you really probe the strengths and the weaknesses of the team you are going to be involved with for the next eight or ten days. You take apart everything pertaining to their offense and defense.
''Of course the big thing in the playoffs is defense. If you can get teammates to play the tough defense who weren't that interested in doing so before, then you most likely can greatly increase your chances of winning a short series. It also helps if you throw in a modified zone defense, because of what this can do to your opponents psychologically.''
Russell says that even though a team may win its division title, thus assuring itself of the extra home game in the playoffs, there is no guarantee that this will help every time.
''Take last season, for example,'' Bill told me. ''Boston was a better team than Philadelphia, yet the 76ers were able to win a deciding seventh game on the Celtics' home court, because they were better prepared. It can happen sometimes.
''This year Philadelphia, with the addition of center Moses Malone, has dominated everybody it's played,'' he added. ''Teams can't just concentrate on doing a good job against Malone, because they've also got to stop Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, and Maurice Cheeks, which is a hard thing to do.
''But let me tell you something. The 76ers might not beat the Celtics this time if Boston gets serious about the playoffs, concentrates well, and plays Philadelphia real tight defensively. It's not something you can predict, but under certain conditions it could happen.''
Russell claims that Boston, despite its fine record, is still not a settled ball club.
''I look at the Celtics and the first thing I notice is that Coach Bill Fitch is still experimenting with the starting forward position opposite Larry Bird,'' Bill said. ''Sometimes it's Cedric Maxwell and sometimes it's Kevin McHale, and what happens when Scott Wedman, who Boston recently got from Cleveland, learns the Celtics' sytem? One of the problems with having so much talent is that often the coach can't find the minutes to take advantage of it.
''The same thing is true of the Celtic backcourt,'' he continued. ''Tiny Archibald, Quinn Buckner, Danny Ainge, and Charles Bradley have all started, although I know that some of that was because of injuries. I'm not criticizing Fitch for this, because part of a coach's job is to experiment. But there comes a time in the season when you have to decide on a regular lineup and stay with it, or you don't get anywhere. For the Celtics, that time is just about now.''
Russell isn't sure what team might be the toughest problem for the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference playoffs. But he likes the trade that recently sent Cleveland's seven-foot center James Edwards to the Phoenix Suns.
''There are better pivotmen in the West than Edwards, but any time you take a pretty good player out of a losing situation like the one in Cleveland and put him on a winning team like Phoenix, you've created a plus situation,'' Russell said. ''Edwards can shoot and he can block shots, and, in my opinion, he's the first true center the Suns have ever had. Bringing in someone like that at this time can only have a positive effect on his teammates, especially with so much of the regular season left. With forwards Maurice Lucas, who is 6-9, on one side of James, and Alvan Adams, who is also 6-9, on the other side, the Suns should be able to handle almost any opponent on the boards.''
As for Russell himself, the $10,000 worth of electric trains that he bought during his early years in Boston are currently in storage. However, he still owns a 1,500-acre rubber plantation in Liberia, although the price of rubber is so low that it is not a profitable venture for him right now.
And of course he still has his kettle-drum laugh - the one that Auerbach says nearly drove him out of basketball when he had to listen to it rattling around the rafters of Boston Garden at every Celtics' practice.