By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Not to take anything away from LeBron James, Dwayne Wade or even Michael Jordan, for they have taken basketball to heights — and yes, there was a pun intended there — that it never before had reached, but it is really too bad that today’s fans missed out on the man who turned the sport into a true art form.
You have to go back to the dark ages of the sport, pull out some of the grainy, black-and-white films that now record his feats, but there never was and never has been anything like watching Bill Russell play basketball.
Offensively, this goateed giant was good, but not great.
Defensively, he was the best ever.
He was to shot blocking what Rembrandt was to oil painting, what Pavarotti was to opera, what Fred Astaire was to tap dancing.
He was poetry in motion, as graceful as he was dominating, his timing impeccable, blocking shots always at the apogee of their trajectory, not swatting them into the third row of seats, but blocking them in a controlled fashion so that he or one of his teammates could retrieve the ball and turn it into one of the Celtics’ patterned fast breaks.
His simple presence in the post intimidated anyone who dare come there, save for Wilt Chamberlain, who was four inches taller than Russell’s 6-9 and able to score on Russell but seldom beat him.
“The idea is not to block every shot. The idea is to make your opponent believe that you might block every shot,” Russell once said.
We bring this up on this Saturday morning as West Virginia University prepares to play Notre Dame at the Coliseum because when the Mountaineers take the floor at 1 p.m., it will be with the top shot-blocker in the Big East on their side, John Flowers.
In many ways Flowers is like Russell. He is long at 6-7, but not a terribly tall in today’s game, and he is lean. He is not necessarily on the floor for his offensive skills, although they have improved beyond the point that anyone expected this season.
Mostly, like Russell, he performs his blocks with grace and athleticism, with a long reach and a gravity-defying vertical leap.
You ask him the secret to blocking an average of 2.4 shots a game, and he pinpoints timing as the No. 1 factor, the ability to read a shooter, to reach the top of your jump when the ball is about to leave his hands, but at the same time he credits help defense from teammates who push him into the position where he has a shot at blocking the shot.
There is a certain mentality a shot-blocker has to have, one that Flowers developed early.
“I could always block shots,” he said.
The numbers back that up, averaging seven blocks a game in high school while home in Maryland.
“I always thought it was the fun part of the game,” he admitted. “Back in high school we would have contests to see if someone could dunk against someone trying to block the shot.”
We suspect Flowers won that no matter which side he was on.
The idea behind the importance of excelling defensive was injected into Flowers’ psyche at a young age by his parents. His mother, Pam Kelly Flowers, was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame after earning All-America honors three times at Louisiana Tech.
Points just never matters to him.
“It’s not about what you do unless you win,” his parents would tell him and he accepted that as the gospel.
He learned quickly that shot blocking was a psychological weapon.
“It’s embarrassing,” he said. “It makes you think twice about going back up again.”
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.