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The late Bill Russell’s connection to Rochester sports history

Oh, what might have been. Imagine how different Bill Russell’s career and life and the history of professional basketball would have been if he had worn Rochester Royals blue rather than Boston Celtics green; if he had a crown, rather than a shamrock embroidered on his uniform.

In all likelihood, Russell wouldn’t have become the winningest winner in the history of team sports. And the Celtics basketball dynasty never would have taken flight. Victory-cigar smoking Red Auerbach would have become just another run-of-the-mill coach instead of a Hall-of-Famer. And maybe, just maybe, there would have been a dynasty in little old Rochester. Perhaps the Flower City would have become the Green Bay Packers of the NBA. Probably not. But we’ll never know for certain.

Russell’s death the other day at age 88 took me back to my many conversations with the late Les Harrison, the former Royals owner and coach and one of pro basketball’s true pioneers. And it took me back to stories about what transpired during the 1956 NBA draft and how the Royals held the top overall pick, and Russell was theirs for the taking.

Harrison, who is enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, achieved so much during his illustrious career. He and other mid-sized-market owners, like Danny Biasone of the old Syracuse Nationals, dug deep into their own pockets and risked personal bankruptcy while laying the foundation for the $15-billion-a-year, international business the NBA has become. But the one stain Harrison could never remove from his legacy, the one decision he abhorred talking about was his decision to draft Sihugo Green first overall instead of Russell.

Green is regarded as one of the biggest draft busts in sports history. The two-time Duquesne University All-American guard wound up averaging a pedestrian 9.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while playing for four teams in nine NBA seasons. Russell, as we’ve been reminded in numerous heartfelt tributes in recent days, changed the way the game was played and became an influential civil rights activist. He turned shot-blocking, rebounding and fast-break out-let passes into an art form, while becoming the ultimate team-first player in the Celtics unparalleled run to 11 NBA titles in his 13 seasons.

How Russell wound up in Boston instead of Rochester is the stuff of lore and interpretation. Stories vary. The truth is hard to pin down.

The most entertaining explanation was given by Russell teammate and fellow Hall-of-Famer Tommy Heinsohn, who had a long post-playing career as a Celtics broadcast analyst. He claimed Auerbach convinced Celtics owner Walter Brown to guarantee Harrison a lucrative series of Ice Capades shows at the Rochester War Memorial (now called the Blue Cross Arena). In exchange for that financial windfall, the cash-strapped Royals owner wouldn’t select Russell with the first pick.

“Walter Brown was a prime stockholder in the Ice Capades, which was a big draw for all of these arenas,’’ Heinsohn said in an interview with the Boston Globe years ago. “And Walter made a deal with Lester Harrison that if they didn’t take Russell, he would maneuver the Ice Capades and they would set up some dates for the Ice Capades to appear at Lester’s arena. So, Russell became the only player in NBA history that got traded for the Ice Capades.”

Wonderful story. A story embedded in Celtics folklore. And a story that’s never been proven true. Auerbach confirmed Heinsohn’s details, but Harrison and Brown claimed it was a bunch of malarky.

Through the years, Harrison offered several different explanations for his infamous decision. Some were plausible, some not. He told me Russell looked terrible in one of his college games Harrison scouted. And the Royals owner added that the University of San Francisco star center played poorly on purpose that game because he didn’t want Rochester to draft him. Auerbach, in his autobiography, claimed Harrison brought one of his Black players, Dolly King, with him while visiting Russell, and Russell, who also was Black, resented Harrison’s decision to use another African American as recruiting bait.

Harrison also told me Russell would only play for the Royals if they matched the $25,000 the Harlem Globetrotters were offering him. (It should be noted that, in those nascent days of the NBA, the Globetrotters were serious competitors as evidenced by their signing of Wilt Chamberlain out of college.) Russell denied this story, saying he had no desire to become a “basketball clown” or deal with the rigorous travel schedule of the Globetrotters. Harrison also mentioned to me that the Royals already had a superb big man in Maurice Stokes, and needed a guard more than they needed Russell.

The Royals, who had won the NBA title five years earlier, were struggling mightily at the box office, with an average of about 2,000 spectators per game at the time of Russell’s availability. The addition of Russell, playing next to Stokes, a future Hall-of-Famer, would have enabled the Royals to contend for another championship and boost attendance, but probably not to the level needed. And the writing was on the wall, anyway. The NBA was about to out-grow cities such as Rochester and Syracuse.

So, Harrison passed on Russell. The Celtics traded six-time All-Star Ed Macauley and future star Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks for the second overall pick, which was used to select Russell. The Celtics won their first of 17 NBA championships that season. After the next season, the Royals moved to Cincinnati, beginning a journey that now finds them in Sacramento, as the Kings. The Royals 1951 NBA championship banner hangs from the rafter of the arena there. Who knows? Russell’s jersey might have been displayed there, too, as well as in Rochester, if a different decision had been made six decades ago.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.


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