Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about basketball and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the basketball urban legends featured so far.
FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: The Rochester Royals passed on Bill Russell in the 1956 NBA Draft because the Boston Celtics arranged for the Royals to get the Ice Capades.
NOTE: I wrote a condensed version of this piece for the Huffington Post here. You can go there if you want just the gist of this story. My “official” version is so darn long that I split it into two pages here.
On the day of the 1956 National Basketball Association (NBA) Draft, Boston Celtics general manager (and coach) Arnold “Red” Auerbach made one of the greatest trades in NBA history. He dealt All-Star Center Ed Macauley and rookie small forward Cliff Hagan (drafted by the Celtics in 1953 but never played for the team as he remained at the University of Kentucky for one more season and then spent two years in the military) to the St. Louis Hawks for the second pick in the draft, University of San Francisco center Bill Russell. Macauley and Hagan were both great players (they are both in the Basketball Hall of Fame), but Bill Russell was one of the greatest players of all-time and led the Celtics to a remarkable eleven championships in his thirteen seasons in the NBA (amusingly, one of the only years he failed to win the title was in 1958 when he and the Celtics were defeated in the NBA Finals by none other than Macauley and the Hawks, which still remains the only title in Hawks franchise history).
You might have noticed, though, that the trade was for the second pick in the draft. The Rochester Royals had the first pick in the draft. Why didn’t they draft Russell? There is a legendary story explaining why they passed on Russell. Here is Auerbach telling the story to John Feinstein in Feinstein’s 2004 collection of Auerbach stories, Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game:
‘So how’d you get them to not take Russell?’
Red smiled. I had set him up perfectly.
‘The Ice Capades,’ he said.
‘The Ice Capades?’
‘Sure. Walter Brown [the owner of the Celtics] was president of the Ice-Capades. I had him call Les Harrison, the owner in Rochester, and tell them he’d send the Ice Capades up there for a week if they didn’t draft Russell.’
‘So you got Bill Russell for the Ice-Capades?’
‘You got it.’
Auerbach told basically the same story to Terry Pluto for Pluto’s classic 1992 oral history of the early days of the NBA,
Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA, in the Words of the Men Who Played, Coached, and Built Pro Basketball
Listen, most people don’t know it, but we had assurances from Rochester that they would not take Russell. Lester Harrison was having trouble booking the Ice Capades. At one time, Walter Brown owned part of it. So Walter told Harrison, ‘If you pass on Russell, I’ll help you get the Ice Capades.’ That clinched the deal.
Bill Russell has told essentially the same story, as well, but he also specifically noted that it was Auerbach who told him the story much later on (as he was not privy to the details of the trade at the time).
The “Bill Russell was traded for the Ice Capades” story has now become an accepted part of basketball lore. But is it true?
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