Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Back to School with Bill Russell and K.C. Jones

It’s amazing what you can find at the library. You know, that place that most college students would only darken the night before an exam? Well, I did some exploring and came up with a real humdinger – “The Dandy Dons” by James W. Johnson.

The title alone should tell you the book’s a winner. I mean, who dares to use “dandy” anymore? Somebody with some real cajones, that’s who.

Anyway, read the book because:

1. Speaking of winners, the book’s about the winningest basketballer of all, Bill Russell.

Sports fans are familiar with his record of 11 championships in 13 years and how he used to make himself throw up before every Celtics game. This book goes back farther than that, way back to Russ’ college days with San Francisco and K.C. Jones.

Can you believe a time existed when the thought of altering a shot had never occurred to Russell? That’s like admitting that, once upon a time, Picasso didn’t know how to paint or to sculpt. Regardless of what you might think, however, Johnson takes readers back to the Bay Area native’s first high school JV practice. The practice consisted not of going through fundamentals, but rather the coach and the players had to figure out what the fundamentals were.

“I had never seen a shot blocked when I was learning basketball,” Russell said. “I didn’t even know what it was.” (Dandy, 4) By the time he neared his ascent to the college ranks, Russell understood. Being left-handed naturally put him in the path of a shooter’s release. He also skyrocketed so high above the rim that it startled him at first (12).

2. Johnson beckons you to make yourself comfortable in the passenger’s seat of a 1950s Thunderbird while it makes various stops en route to a pair of NCAA championships and more.

Before he began his coaching career, Dons head man Phil Woolpert envisioned himself as a social worker. Starting with day one of their dorm room experience, Jones and Russell did not exchange as much as a “hello” to one another for a full month.

In time, the 35-year-old mentor, who smoked like a chimney and could be mistaken for Socrates, earned the players’ admiration. Jones called Woolpert and Red Auerbach “two of the classiest men that ever walked this earth. (26) The pair of future Celtics teammates came to find that talk of basketball could last well into the night if either broached the subject.

In addition to supporting one another in drives for a pair of college titles, the twosome also left an impression on the Olympic scene in 1956. Close to 40 years later, Jones found himself in South Korea. A former South Korean opponent recognized him in a déjà vu nightmare. After the Olympics, the man never played hoops again “because every shot I took, Bill Russell blocked.” (182)

3. Last of all, and most important, read Johnson’s pre-“Glory Road” inspiration.

Before the historic 1966 Texas Western team of five black starters won the championship against all-White Kentucky, Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford asserts it was the Dons who braved the way a decade earlier. (xiv) Johnson shares many highs and lows of the courageous journey.

This book is not just dandy, it’s terrific. Go get your hands on it like a Bill Russell blocked shot.

Sam Miller/Free Keon

1 comment:

  1. And all these years I thought I couldn’t block shots because I was 5’11… turns out it was just because I’m right handed!


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