Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell was the ultimate talent, the ultimate player, and the ultimate teammate.
The early great Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s are now far in the past. Fortunately, many of the great stars who comprised that dynasty are still with us today, living testimony to the greatness of that era’s indomitable 5.
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The story of how Bill Russell became a Celtic is quite a story. One note, it wasn’t foreordained.
In 1956, Russell was the best college basketball player in the nation. He played for the University of San Francisco. One person who knew that was Arnold “Red” Auerbach, the coach and de facto General Manager of the Celtics.
Auerbach knew what Russell would mean to the Celtics, and he wasn’t about to be denied. The problem was, the Celtics did not have the first pick in the NBA draft likely necessary to secure Russell’s services. So Auerbach set about to get that pick.
The Celtics had the seventh pick in the NBA draft in 1956. That wasn’t anywhere near high enough to pick Bill Russell the guy Auerbach wanted. So Red began his maneuvering to make the selection of Russell possible.
The Rochester Royals (later Cincinnatti Royals) had the first pick. That was a potential problem. Here’s how Auerbach worked out the trade that was to transform Boston basketball forever.
The Celtics entered the 1956 draft with the 7th pick. This pick was sent to the St. Louis Hawks – along with Ed McCauley and Cliff Hagan, for the 2nd pick. It was believed that the Rochester Royals – who had the first pick – might want to take Russell. Auerbach, though, had a secret weapon.
McCauley and Hagen were not what you would call “chopped meat”. Each would later go on to become key players for the Celtics’ main adversary, the St. Louis Hawks, and to become a hall of famer. Auerbach had to either secure the first pick from Rochester or otherwise somehow guarantee that the second pick would be Russell.
In yet another interesting side note to this trade, Auerbach was also able to persuade the owner of the Hawks for whom he had previously worked to include Hagan in the deal instead of the Celtics own 7th pick in the draft. That pick turned into another Celtics’ legend, Tommy Heinsohn.
How the Ice Capades helped bring Boston a dynasty
What were the Ice Capades and how did a skating show impact the Boston Celtics? The Ice Capades originated as a figure skating show in 1940 that enjoyed great popularity for many years until meeting its demise in 1996. The show was a traveling extravaganza that performed at large ice arenas around the country like, the Boston Garden. In its heyday, it was a big attraction (as was pro wrestling, by the way even back then).
The owner of the Celtics, Walter Brown, was also the president of the Ice Capades. Brown called up the owner of the Royals– Lee Harrison — with the following offer: Brown would send the Ice Capades to Rochester for one week if the Royals would pass on Russell. Harrison agreed and with the first overall choice in the 1956 draft the Royals selected Si Green, a guard from Duquesne.
So there’s the gist of the Russell trade, the Celtics would trade two future hall of famers to St. Louis for the 2nd pick in the 1956 draft. Brown would send the Ice Capades to Rochester for a week for a commitment that Russell would be available to the Celtics at No. 2.
To be fair, it has been speculated that there may have been other complicating matters for Rochester like Russell wanted a signing bonus that Rochester didn’t want to pay and that Russell wanted to be on a big market team. Who knows.
Truth, in this case, is stranger than fiction
There’s an old saying that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Anyone observing the framework of this Celtics’ trade has to believe it’s true. An ice show helped deliver the greatest winner in the history of team sports in America to Boston, Bill Russell.
“Big Bill” won 11 championships as a player in Boston, more than any other player in NBA history. And a dynasty was born.
Hats off to Michael Jordan, but there is no denying that the greatest winner and one of the all-time greatest players in any sport in history was the incomparable, Bill Russell.