Hall of Famer Bailey Howell Settles the Bill vs. Wilt Debate and So Much More
Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re good.
I was definitely lucky. I was able to talk on the phone recently with Hall of Famer Bailey Howell. Howell played in Detroit for 5 seasons, Washington for 2, Boston for 4, and one last season in Philadelphia.
Howell was a true all-around player, averaging 18.7 points and 9.9 rebounds for his entire career. He was a starting player for legendary teams including Sam Jones, KC Jones, John Havlicek, Satch Sanders, and Bill Russell, and was a 6 time All-Star.
Dick Vitale calls Howell the greatest offensive rebounder in history. How d’ya like that?
Howell talked with me about his career, Bill Russell, and gave some stellar life advice. I left our conversation feeling extremely thankful.
Below, I’ve transcribed our interview. It has been edited for clarity and tone, and some questions that were off topic were omitted. I also omitted the first minute of our call where both of us were shouting “Hello?!?” into the phone before I got my recording app setup.
Reid: Mr. Howell, I was wanting to know if I could run 10-12 questions by you tonight.
Bailey Howell: Ok, we'll try that.
R: Alrighty. Well, I had a lot of fun looking back over your career and some of the teams you played on. One of the questions I had was: When you are looking back over your career, do you consider yourself more of a Piston or a Celtic?
B: Well, of course, the Pistons were the team that drafted me. I spent the majority of my career there. I spent 5 years there, which is longer with them than anyone else. And my wife and I really enjoyed the city of Detroit at that time. There were many congregations of the church there.
B: –and we found a place and felt really at home. The thrill of winning, of course, trumps a lot of things. With the Celtics, of course, it was by far the best team situation I was on. So I really kinda consider myself closer to the Celtics and their organization than I do with all the other teams.
R: That makes sense. So when you were in Boston, you got to play with, I guess Sam and KC Jones–
B: Yeah, KC was there one year–
R: Didn't he retire?
B: And then he retired. Right.
R: And then–
B: I played with Sam for 3 years of the 4 when I was in Boston, then he retired after 3 years.
R: Ok, so Bill Rusell was there, and so was John Havlicek, and so was Satch Sanders, is that correct?
B: Yes, that's right.
R: And you mentioned winning there so much. When you think about your years with the Celtics, is the winning what first comes to mind?
B: Well, yes. And the team was closer as far as winning and playing basketball is concerned. The players knew what it took to win, and they were willing to sacrifice in order to do so. There was a lot more teamwork than on the other clubs I played on. So, the team experience was better in Boston than the other clubs I played. And of course, winning was just icing on the cake, so to speak.
R: It seems like it was pretty different than when you were in Detroit with Gene Shue. In Detroit was it mostly the two of you carrying the offensive load?
B: Well, my first year in the league, I think Gene Shue scored more points than any guard in the league the previous year. I'm not sure, but he was a very prolific scorer. And my rookie year I averaged almost 18 points a game and so I felt like I was productive and contributed to the team. I think that I finished second in the voting for rookie of the year. Wilt Chamberlin, no doubt, was the rookie of the year.
R: He was pretty good at basketball.
R: You played at Mississippi State, and during the time you were there and also your first few years in the league, the amount of points per game that most teams scored went up a whole lot. Scoring became a much bigger part of the game, it seems like. Do you remember being aware of it at the time, or was that something totally off your radar?
B: In college, I think, we played just 40-minute games. And the NBA, it was a 48-minute game. In 48 minutes, you should score more points than you do in 40 minutes.
B: The NBA had a 24-second clock, which meant the offense had to shoot within the first 24 seconds that they had the ball. And in college–when I was in college–there wasn't a clock. So sometimes, the teams were prone to freeze the ball if they had the lead, especially late in the game. And at Mississippi State, our coach in my last couple of years, if we got a lead even early in the game, we would go into what we called a "stall offense." And that was the team that was behind–which would be our opponent–had to force the action. That was a rule at that time. So, actually the official would count to 5 seconds, and the team behind would make an effort to score. But if we had the ball and were ahead and in our stall offense, we were not in any hurry to shoot. You would advance the ball to the basket, throw it back out, and wait until the other team kinda got into a position where defensively they weren't in their best lineup, so to speak. It was an effort to pull the team off their real tight zone that they liked to play.
R: It sounds a whole lot like...were y'all playing a game of keep away?
B: Yeah, you could say it was very similar to that, to playing keep away. It was for us to hold the ball until they got anxious and tried to steal it and all, and their defense would break down, and we'd advance the ball–of course, we had to advance the ball. We had a 4 corner offense with a player in each corner, and I was in the middle at the foul line. And they would throw it into me, and if I had a chance to go to the basket or shoot, I would. If not, I'd throw it back out. The other team would get real anxious finally and try to steal the ball or something, and we'd take advantage of their mistake. So, we won 25 games my senior year and lost only one. Maybe 24-1, I don't remember.
R: How far did y'all go after the season? Was the tournament the same format it is now?
B: Well that's the bad memory of it all. That' the disappointing part of it that lives with us to this day. That is that the politicians in Mississippi would not allow us to play against integrated teams. So we weren't allowed, even though we won the SEC tournament.
R: Oh my gosh.
B: We won the SEC tournament.
R: That's horrible.
B: Yeah. It's a bitter disappointment. We were ranked 4th in the nation at the end of the season. In all the southeast–not only in the Southeastern conference–throughout the geographic southeast, we were the best team. And at that time, you only had the winner of the SEC had a BYE the first round. And some other leagues did as well, but you only had to win 2 games to get to the Final Four. So, I felt like we had a real shot in the tournament, and once you're there you never know. A chance to win the championship.
R: I can't imagine what it would be like to look back and know that was the reason you weren't allowed to play.
R: Sort of along those lines–and you can correct my years if I'm wrong here–was it 1966 when Bill Russell became a player-coach for the Celtics? Is that right?
B: I think that's right. In the fall of '66–the season of '66-'67, he was a player-coach.
R: So, he's the first black head coach in North American sports history. What do you remember that time being like as far as playing for a teammate, and also the huge social impact of having a black head coach?
B: Well, the social impact, we didn't really dwell on that. He was the coach. Color didn't matter. My first year in Boston, Boston had won 8 world championships in a row at that time. The spring of '66, they won their 8th, and Red Auerbach had retired. And so, the Celtics had to hire a new coach. Russ and Red Auerbach, who at the time was the coach, had a real great relationship. Red called Russ in and said "We gotta name a new coach. Who will you play for?" And Russell said, "I'll only play for Frank Ramsey." Frank Ramsey had been a teammate in Boston and had been retired for several years. So they offered the job to Frank Ramsey and he turned it down. So, they named Bill the player-coach. [laughs]
R: I guess that worked out pretty well.
B: Our very first year [with Bill as coach] we lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Philadelphia 76ers who had built and assembled a great game. They set the record for most victories in a season. In fact, they had the best record the last two seasons. They beat us in the [Eastern Conference] Finals, and everybody said "Boston's dead, the dynasty is over," but we turned around and won the championship the next two years in '68 and '69.
R: Goodness. It's very hard to find a lot of film and video of you guys playing together, but I know that you–as a player–were known...well, many basketball historians say your reputation as a player revolves around your work ethic and being a family man. I wanted to ask why you think that's what is remembered about you?
B: When you say "family man," do you mean my personal family or the team family?
R: Your personal family.
B: [On work ethic] Of course, it's such a grind. 82 games a year. Also, we played quite a few exhibition games before the season started, and the playoffs lasted over a month after the season ended. It's an incredible grind. We played many weekends. Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. And so, the guys that pushed themselves the most were the strongest guys mentally–especially on that Sunday afternoon game. Because everybody on the court was feeling sorry for themselves because you had no sleep flying to the next city. Very little sleep. 3 games in less than 3 days. You know, your body is not really ready for something like that.
R: How did you balance that with your personal family?
B: Well, you spent as much time with them as you could. We were on the road, and the travel made the time dispel and erode from the time you'd be able to be at home. But off days, you'd often be at home. So you know, you were probably at home as much as you were on the road. Your priority is your family.
B: After your priority to your God and your Christianity.
R: So, one more quick question about the Celtics. I read somewhere that Bill Russell used to throw up before really big games. Is that true?
B: Not only really big games, but almost every game.
R: Oh my goodness.
B: Very seldom did he not throw up before a game. I don't know if he had a weak stomach or what. But he prepared himself to play, you know. In 13 seasons, he won 11 world championships.
B: So, without any argument, I think he is the most valuable player to his team than anybody who's ever played.
R: Yeah! So, it's interesting to read about that time, because a lot of people like to argue about Bill and Wilt as far as who was the most valuable player, but I think the consensus now is that Bill was overwhelmingly more valuable to his team, even though Wilt had huge numbers.
B: Well, Wilt was bigger than Bill. He was like 7'3, and Russ was 6'11, I think. Maybe 6'10. Wilt was bigger and stronger, but Bill was a better athlete. Although, Wilt was an incredible athlete for a person his size. Wilt wanted to truly prove–by the way he played the game–that his size was not why he was dominant. So, you know, he'd shoot a fallaway jumper. Probably half of his shots were fallaway jumpers. Well. Maybe not that many, but anyway. Here's a guy who's almost 7'5 and he'd turn to the basket, he had great leaping ability and he was basically unstoppable. But he'd shoot a fallaway jumper, which took him out of the chance to get as many rebounds. You're falling away, your balance is still going away from the basket even after he shoots. But he played like that to show that "My size is not everything." He had a hang-up about his height. He'd say "Nobody likes Goliath" and stuff like that.
R: They didn't keep track of how many blocks per game players had. Do you have any idea how many you think Bill would've had?
B: Well, I think you're right in that they didn't keep blocked shot statistics back then. But, anybody that drove to the basket or got close to the basket to shoot was in danger of getting their shot blocked. You know, guys would like to drive to the hoop and do everything they could to try to get the shot off, and Bill would often still block it. They'd put up a wild shot just to get it over him.
R: Right. So like I mentioned, it's hard to find video of back then, but I've read a lot about how Bill would block shots with the purpose of tapping the block out to maybe you or Havlicek on the wing to start a fast break. Did he do that often?
B: Well, he often blocked the shot and recovered the ball himself. He didn't block it out of bounds in a real aggressive manner like a lot of guys today making a statement like "Don't come in here" and then block the shot with a lot of force and knock it out of bounds. He would try to block it to get the motion of the ball. If it goes out of bounds, the offense gets to keep it.
R: I've got just one more question for you. Looking back over your career start to finish, what–if you can name just one–what is the one thing you're most thankful for? The one thing you take away from those times?
B: Well, I think everybody gets from God some talent of some kind. And recognizing that talent, and then developing that talent to its fullest extent–getting as much out of the talent that you have as you can, getting as close to 100%. Very few people achieve that. There was a lot of guys with more athletic ability than I had, but I had a more productive career. That's why people like Larry Bird or Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan, these guys got as much out of their talent as [they could]. They got as close to all of it as they could. That's what I'm proud of. I feel like I got as much out of my ability as I could possibly do. Of course, you can always do more. The basketball player you are today is not as good as you could become. What kind of businessman you are, what kind of minister, or whatever, is not as good as you could become. Everybody has that gap in their life, and you need to have it as narrow as you can have it. You need to try to achieve as much as your God-given talents are.
R: I think that's a great thing to remember. I hope I didn't keep you up too late.
B: Well you know, we're retired. So we don't have an early bedtime [laughs]
R: Well, however late you're staying up, I hope it's a good one. I'm grateful you were willing to get on a call with me.