The NBA is celebrating players from the NBA 75 list almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is Celtics icon Bill Russell, the five-time NBA MVP and 12-time All-Star who won an astounding 11 NBA titles in his 13-year career. This wide-ranging exclusive Q&A, conducted by TSN associate editor William Ladson, appeared in the March 1, 1999, issue of The Sporting News.
Shaquille O’Neal is the most dominating center in the NBA today. After all, entering this week, he leads all big men in scoring and ranks in the top five in rebounds per game. But Shaq, who has played for the Lakers for two-plus seasons, will be the first to tell you he doesn’t know everything about the game. That’s the reason he decided to meet Bill Russell at Planet Hollywood in Los Angeles during the lockout. And why not? Russell, 65, is arguably the best center who ever played. He guided the Celtics to 11 championships and won five regular-season MVPs.
When the two finally met, Shaq acted like a grandson trying to get wisdom from his grandfather — listening carefully and reacting quickly to whatever advice Russell gave him.
But don’t think the respect is one-sided. Russell revealed to Shaq during the meeting that he voted him one of the 50 greatest players in the NBA, high praise for a guy who has never won a championship.
So what did Shaq and Russell talk about? Everything from free-throw shooting to passing the ball.
The Sporting News: Let’s start with Bill. The last time you played in the NBA was during the 1968-69 season. How has the center position changed since then?
Russell: There aren’t many good centers (today), so opponents play zone defense against them. The way defenses are now, one thing you have to do is pass the ball. If you are a good passer, then it’s a walk in the park.
O’Neal: (The opponents) play zone defense, but I had to learn to adapt to that since high school. I just try to go out and do my job and play hard. Personally, I need to make improvements on the free-throw line and step up on defense. I used to be defensive-oriented, especially in high school and college. Now, (referees) sometime call the games so funny. Sometimes I let a lot go on defense. Now I’m going to try (stepping up on the defensive end) because I like blocking shots. But I’m so big and strong that when I touch … these NBA actors, they flop to the floor. They say, “Shaq is big and strong; he knocked the guy down.” So I sometimes have to back off a little bit (on the defensive end). I’m going to try to pick it up in that category.
Russell: As far as the free throws, I wouldn’t stay awake one minute worrying about that. It really isn’t a big deal
O’Neal: I’m not worried about it
Russell: Most of the guys that criticize you for free throws are on other teams or writers. They really don’t know what you are doing. One area you should improve on is your passing. There are at least eight different kinds of passes you can make from the center position. That’s what you should master — left, righthanded. And you can do things to change the passing lanes. What will happen is, if you become the passer you should be, it will make it so much easier. If you become a great passer, your shots become far more easier. If you can pass, you end up with one-on-one defense. Part of passing is an attitude thing.
The reason you are having problems defensively is because you are starting too late. What I mean by that is, you have to be in a flex position. Because if you are standing there, and you got to move, first thing you have to do is flex. That’s a step. If you are already flexed, then the next step is movement. When I played center, I could look over the guard’s head. I knew I was out of position. In other words, I flexed on down with him and I could see through the traffic. Then, open up on defense. Do you know what that means?
O’Neal: Keep your hands up?
Russell: No. Keep your hands down. Always keep your hands down. “Open up” means no matter where the ball is, be able to face it, but keep your man in sight. In other words, use your split vision. If I’m guarding you, the ball is over there, I should be in the position where I can see you and the ball. Now I’m opening up. And I can react quicker to the offense.
TSN: With the exception of Shaq, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, the center is no longer the focal point of the offense. Why is that?
Russell: The position is still the focal point. No matter who is playing center and when they post up, the opponents double-team him. Automatically, that’s got to be the focal point. You can use it as a diversion. In order to get a shot over there, (you can pass the ball to the center first). That is still a key spot.
O’Neal: There are only two or three dominant centers in the league. (For other teams), you have guys (who have) to pick up the slack like (Allen) Iverson. … (The Bulls never had) a dominant center. But they always had the one-two punch (in Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen). Look at the history of basketball: All the great teams had the one-two punch. I only had that one time in my career, and we did go to the Finals. Once I get another one-two punch and good role players around me, we’ll be fine.
TSN: We have seen centers taking more jumpers than ever. Why is that?
O’Neal: I will never knock a guy for what he can do. … I grew up a big man. I’m always going to be a big man. I like being in the trenches. I could step out and shoot the jumpers if I wanted to, but I like being out there banging, drop-steppin’, dunking, hitting the jump hook — right hand, left hand. I couldn’t see myself shooting 10 jumpers a game. If I were watching myself on TV, I wouldn’t want to see a 7-foot, 330-pound guy shooting jumpers
Russell: There’s nothing wrong with (centers) taking jumpers. If you have shots that you have confidence in, that’s the one you should take. During my freshman year (at San Francisco), I probably spent three hours a night just shooting hook shots. Most great players are unorthodox. They develop what they do. When a guy like Shaq comes along, (the critics) say, “Shaq should do this because that’s the way the centers are supposed to do it.” That’s null and void. You do what you do best.
In the early ’80s, when Magic (Johnson) was at his best, everybody was talking about triple-doubles. So that became the benchmark for guards. But last season the guy that everybody says was the best player in the game didn’t have any triple-doubles. That stat for Magic didn’t apply to Michael.
TSN: Shaq, do you know what you need to win the championship?
O’Neal: First of all, I need everybody on my team to be on the same page. And we all have to be humble.
Russell: Are you on the same page?
O’Neal: Throughout the (1997-98) season, we were on the same page. But before the season started, people were saying, “The Lakers were … not going to beat Seattle. Oh, Seattle got Vin Baker, and they are going to kill the Lakers. Last year we were not.” After we beat Seattle (in the semifinals), we kind of felt that we did something. But we have to make sure that we stay hungry. I think we have good enough tools to win, but we have to be on the same page. After we smoked Seattle, we thought we were going to win it all. Nobody expected us to beat Seattle.
Russell: You think so?
O’Neal: Yeah, I do. The articles …
Russell: There you go again. You can’t listen to those guys (laughing hard).
O’Neal: That’s the (motivation) that I use. I said, “Look guys, we are playing against Seattle. We are not supposed to beat them. … Let’s go out and kick their ass.” And after we did that, we just kind of (lost focus). As a matter of fact, (the year the Magic) went to the Finals, it was like, “Oh (no). Mike’s back. You are not going to beat the Bulls.” That was the year we beat the Bulls (in the semifinals). That was the year he took off, and he was wearing No. 45. We had a week off and it was the (conference finals), and I kind of saw the (lackadaisical) attitude there, too. We were chilling out, (messing) around in practice.
TSN: Is that why the Rockets swept the Magic?
O’Neal: Yeah. Nobody mentioned the Rockets.
TSN: Centers today are lucky to get 1,000 rebounds in a season. How come they are not getting the rebounds in great numbers like in Bill’s day?
O’Neal: When he played, Mr. Russell went for every rebound. I really don’t go for every rebound all the time. Sometimes I have three or four guys hanging over me, so I really can’t get to it.
Russell: First of all, there aren’t many rebounders to start with. Rebounding is a skill. Just because you are tall doesn’t make you’re a rebounder. Have you ever seen Bill Laimbeer play?
O’Neal: I played against him a few times.
Russell: Did you know he led the league in rebounding?
O’Neal: He can’t jump at all.
Russell: (Laughing) That’s right. Paul Silas was the personification of Black guys can’t jump. Laimbeer could outjump him. The most important thing about rebounding is positioning. For me, I got most of my rebounds before the shot was taken. Say you are playing the Bulls. Michael is working somebody over. He’s a great shooter, but he still misses half of his shots. What makes a great shooter is consistency. When he misses, it’s the same thing. So if he is shooting from that spot, a great majority of the misses will go to the same spot.
I used to watch the rotation on the ball. If it was really rotating good, it was a soft rebound. If the guy is shooting bricks, you got to get farther away (from the basket). … If you watch the who shoot … for example, Karl Malone does most of the shooting for the Jazz. He scores 40 points. He might make 15 out of 25 shots. You should get all 10 of those boards because you know where they are going. Instead of standing there, pushing the guy out of the way and getting a foul, start working as soon as you see him take a shot. You can tell when he’s going to shoot. When he starts dribbling, that’s when you go to your spot.
TSN: But how can centers allow a guy like Dennis Rodman, who is 6-7, to get so many rebounds? That doesn’t make any sense.
O’Neal: Rebounding is a skill. Rodman is always moving. He does get in great position, now that (Russell) said that, I never knew that. Now that the legend made it clear, I find that to be true.
TSN: But couldn’t Rodman be stopped? He can’t score a basket.
Russell: But the thing is, you can’t do that. That’s what makes him great because nobody can stop him from rebounding. You can counter him, but you can’t stop him. That’s like saying, “If Michael is getting 30 points a game, how come he can’t be stopped?” There’s (one) thing you can do: Emulate him, and that’s the best way to counter him.
TSN: Bill, people say if Shaq didn’t have his extracurricular activities — rapping, making movies — his free-throw percentage would be better. Yet, your free-throw percentage was only three points higher than Shaq’s.
Russell: And I didn’t worry about it, either.
TSN: Do you think the media are blowing it out of proportion?
Russell: Well, he should be making his free throws. Let’s acknowledge that. That’s one part of the game. … Now I was a bad free-throw shooter. If you look at the championship series, the Finals, I have one of the top 10 free-throw shooting games. I made 14 out of 17, including 10 straight in the last quarter.
O’Neal: I have the record (at LSU’s Pete Maravich Center) for free throws — attempts and makes. For me, it’s just a concentration thing. Once I get over that, I’m fine. Certain games I can go 15-for-17. In other games, I’m pissed off because the ref didn’t get the call right and I’m not thinking. I think I’ve won more games at the line for my team than I’ve lost. … I think for a guy like me, I do other things really well.
TSN: Shaq, do you think the media are making too much of a big deal about your free-throw shooting, considering that Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were poor free-throw shooters?
O’Neal: I never think about it. I know what’s going on. But …
Russell: I wasn’t that bad (laughing).
O’Neal: I do certain things well. (The critics) just try to pick things I don’t do well. My question to them is, once I’m shooting 70-80 percent and I will get to that — what are they going to say next? “Well, he has too many cars.” They always have something to say.
Russell: Do you remember a few years ago, Michael and his dad — the Bulls were playing the Knicks (in the playoffs) — they went to Atlantic City.
O’Neal: I was getting ready to say the same thing Russell: Really?
O’Neal: I swear to God I was getting ready to same thing. Michael Jordan is the greatest player in the world.
Russell: And they were saying, he had no business being out at 4 o’clock in the morning. How in the hell did they know (where he should be)?
O’Neal: You see, there is the difference between media and yellow journalism. People that are part of the media stick to the facts. Yellow journalists, they want to be smart, Mike Lupica-type people. They also want to say something that makes them look good and make you look like a little ass.
Russell: I will give you some advice. Mike Lupica can never do anything to you, OK? Basically, he does not exist. A guy asked me about a writer one time. You want to know what I said? I said, “I am not familiar with his work. So I cannot respond to what you said he said.” You should never let somebody that doesn’t like you, doesn’t care about you, have the authority to critique your situation
When I came out of college. They said, “(He) couldn’t play pro ball. He can’t shoot.” But during my rookie year, I led the team in field-goal percentage. And 10 years later, they said, “He can’t shoot.” This is a true story: One night, I’m playing and I’m about 18 feet (away from the basket). I got a little guy on me, and I’m getting ready to take a jump shot. And I got down on a crouch and I called timeout. And (Red Auerbach) said, “What’s the matter.” I said, “I was about to do something dumb and I thought I would check myself.” I had no business letting these people tell me how to play. And I know they don’t know anything
TSN: In baseball, the umpires are taking a major hit because of their incompetence on the field. How do you feel about the referees in the NBA? Let’s start with Shaq.
O’Neal: They have been pretty good to me. I’ve been in the league six years, and I’ve probably had four or five bad experiences. But other than that (they have been) fair.
TSN: Do you think the referees are doing a good job trying to stop the Hack-a-Shaq?
O’Neal: I think they are, but I don’t think they call it every time I get fouled. Everybody knows I get fouled on every play. Another thing I have a problem with is guys coming in and (tackling) me and they don’t call it. So when I play defense, they call a foul. That’s the only thing I have a problem with. I don’t have a problem being hit because I like being hit. Overall, I think (the referees) are about 89.2 percent good.
Russell: The referees are just like players. There are some good ones and some that shouldn’t be there. They do a decent job most of them. … They are no more incompetent than, say, the coaches (laughing). I’m just kidding. They’re OK. I’m not going to write a couple of books about how good the referees are.
TSN: Shaq, since Bill says you shouldn’t worry about your free throws, what is the true role of a center?
O’Neal: He should try to control a game. Try to rebound. And if he has the ability to score, he could put the other team at a disadvantage. Sometimes I have to be used as a decoy. … If I’m double-teamed, I want to be a better passer. I want to make the game easier for everybody else. I want to alter shots, block some shots.
Russell: In most team sports, the strength, especially in defense, is up the middle. The center can do a lot of things to determine the outcome. They must understand the concept of what you are trying to do. For example, knowing the plays. … Every player on the floor should be able to run every play from every position. I know I was able to do that. Say they put a fourth-quarter press on us, and my guards were having a difficult time … I can start the offense from the point guard spot. And the reason for that is, if I know what number one’s problems are. I know how to help him. But if I don’t know what his problems are from that slot, it’s like what’s wrong with me.
TSN: Who is the best center you ever saw? Let’s start with Shaq.
O’Neal: Each center was different. But my top five are Mr. Russell, Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), Wilt, Hakeem and David. I always heard about Wilt, Kareem and Mr. Russell every day. (My dad) used to tell me about those guys. Me being a young kid, I was always trying to be like Dr. J. and Magic. My dad used to say, “Shoot the skyhook,” and I didn’t want to shoot the skyhook. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to be like Magic. My dad was always saying, “Do this, do this. You’re playing like a punk. Wilt Chamberlain ain’t a punk.” It hard to say who was the best. I’m just glad to have my name mentioned in the same breath as those guys
TSN: Bill, who do you think was the best center?
Russell: The best I ever saw was Wilt. I always had to get past him to get to the championship. What happened was that we won so many championships that everybody says. “You guys beat Wilt.” We beat everybody. It wasn’t just him. I think if I wasn’t playing at the time, Wilt probably would have won at least a half-dozen championships. (One year), he averaged 50 points per game. That’s astounding. I watched a lot of them up close. I think he got 60-something off me one night. That hurts (laughing). The year before, he averaged 27 rebounds for the whole season. That is playing center. You can’t beat that.
TSN: Shaq, if you were writing a rap song about Bill Russell, what would be the first few verses?
O’Neal: (The song) would be called, “Get this (crap) out of here.” I’ll be saying lyrically, ”They can’t come in my zone. All you hoopers, you all know you can’t score off me. My game is tight, people know my name is right, money I’ll hold tight, games I like, name your spot. I’m the one that will block a shot. I’m like Bill when I’m hot to trot.” Something like that.