Russell & Scully: Two Icons Gone

Boston Celtics Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson in action. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Rare is the occasion when you can consider a person, and can say beyond peradventure, “They are the best ever at what they do.”

We lost two this week.

Bill Russell, the greatest winner in American sports. Not only basketball.

Vin Scully, the greatest broadcaster in American sports. Not only baseball.

 * * * * *

I have a vague memory that I might have seen Bill Russell play in person once.

At some point in the early to mid 60s, if memory serves, there was a preseason NBA doubleheader at Freedom Hall. One of the games featured Philly — either the Warriors or 76ers — because I remember walking up and standing next to Wilt Chamberlain, who was the biggest human being I’d ever seen

Though my memory is shoddy, I believe the Celtics played the other game.

I have no other memories of the evening, including the identity of the other teams.

I do distinctly recall my first Bill Russell moment. Which was listening to the 1956 NCAA championship game, when Russell’s San Francisco Dons beat Iowa, 83-71.

Which brings me to this, one of Russell’s amazing stats, though numbers don’t come close to telling his tale. In college and the NBA, Russell’s teams — SF, Boston — faced elimination 21 times. Their record in those win or go home battles: 21-0.

As Uncle Ed Kallay would say, “You can’t do much better than that.”

Russell won 11 titles as player and player/coach with the Celtics.

He does have another connection with Louisville. When he was general manager of the Sacramento Kings, after a frankly seriously unsuccessful stint as coach, he picked Cardinal Pervis Ellison #1 in the NBA draft.

There are so many great stories about this legend. Just two:

He was a pallbearer at Jackie Robinson’s funeral.

When receiving a lifetime achievement award a few years back from the NBA, he was presented on stage by Shaq, Kareem, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutumbo and maybe one other guy. When he stepped to the mic, he turned to those stars, pointing a finger at each, and advised with that cackle of his, “I’d kick your ass.”

 * * * * *

Mellifluous doesn’t come close to describing Vin Scully’s voice.

It was sonata.

The resonance. The cadence. The stories he told while never losing track of the action.

Calling Hank Aaron’s record breaking career home run, Scully stayed silent for a minute as it cleared the fence, then succinctly shared the slugger’s history as the crowd roared.

The understated elegance when he called Kirk Gibson’s iconic World Series homer, without raising his voice: “She. Is. Gone.”

Then there’s this brilliance, the ninth inning call of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game.

 * * * * *

Bill Russell. Winner.

Vin Scully. Sportscaster.

The best who ever were at what they did.

— c d kaplan


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