It wasn't necessarily as though the Seattle Storm needed inspiration when Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell visited them last Thursday as they were preparing to sweep the Los Angeles Sparks. But there's nobody better to describe how to carry oneself as a winner as the Storm look to take the next step toward a championship in the Western Conference Finals.
It's probably fair to say that Czech forward Jana Vesela wasn't quite as familiar with the full extent of basketball legend Bill Russell's impact on the game as some of her Seattle Storm teammates.
There wasn't a whole lot of media attention given to the NBA in the Czech Republic as she was growing up and, to put it lightly, she couldn't quite recall when Russell played.
Nevertheless, even for a player who wasn't exactly deeply familiar with the legacy of Boston Celtics Hall of Famer, former Seattle Supersonics coach, and current Washington state resident, the magnitude of the legend was felt viscerally from hearing stories during his meeting with the Storm last Thursday.
"it was exciting to meet him in real [life]," said Vesela after practice on Monday. "It was quite interesting to listen to him talking about his career and funny stories. So it was nice to listen to him."
The meeting shouldn't necessarily come as a surprise. It is fairly well-documented that Russell has been among the Storm's most famous long-term fans. If it isn't immediate obvious why someone of Russell's NBA stature would appreciate the WNBA, the reason became clear to Seattle Storm players just listening to him talk.
"To still see that passion in his eyes about the game is something that really resonated with me," said Storm forward Swin Cash. "I had actually met him a few times at different NBA events, like Read To Achieve and things of that sort. But that was like the first time that I actually had to sit and hear him speak and see the passion still in his eyes for this game. It was really remarkable."
Russell has been quoted as saying that the WNBA is basketball "the way we used to play the game", which is something other NBA observers have made about the growing league. Although that might strike some people as merely boring basketball and others as a certification of purity, the point is really probably neither -- it's more a comparison to an era in men's basketball when athleticism and power were less of a defining feature of the game than collective skill and ball movement. That people like Russell -- or the late UCLA coaching legend John Wooden for that matter -- appreciate the women's game for its similarities to theirs is certainly no small compliment.
Of course, saying the Storm are playing the way Russell used to play the game might take on a bit of additional significance this season: after tying a WNBA record for wins in the regular season the Storm are widely considered the favorite to win a championship, something the 11-time NBA champion knows a thing or two about.
"He is a legend obviously and to be able to talk to someone so successful in doing what we love doing was awesome," said Storm center Lauren Jackson. "He said a lot of really important stuff that I think all of us can take and use in our development as players."
For a moment, it might seem odd for a team with championship aspirations like the Storm to bring Russell in during a first round matchup with the Los Angeles Sparks that most observers assumed the Storm would win easily. The Storm had beaten the Sparks five times during the season, essentially won the first game of the series by overwhelming them with transition layups in the first quarter, the Sparks just didn't have the size to contend with the Storm with superstar forward Candace Parker out for the season with a shoulder injury. Although the Sparks put up a good fight early in Game 2 on Saturday, the Storm clamped down in the second half and finished the series in two games.
However, placed in the context of the Storm's championship aspirations, Russell's visit might not have been so much about inspiration to close out a first-round sweep of the Sparks as much as an opportunity to get a better sense of what it takes to complete their historic season with a championship that will put them in a conversation about the league's great teams.
"He really hit on some great notes in terms of being on a team and what little things you can do to help your teammates be successful and your team to be successful," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "So I thought it was good from a standpoint of our players just to listen to somebody that has been there and done that. He was good -- I was very impressed with the presentation."
One player that was particularly struck by Russell was Cash, who tweeted about her excitement about meeting him last Thursday. As someone who has won two WNBA championships under former Detroit Shock coach Bill Laimbeer and has been around dominant winners while playing with Storm teammates Svetlana Abrosimova and Sue Bird for coach Geno Auriemma at UConn, Cash highlighted something similar to Agler.
"The one thing about him that I got from it is that he had so much humility," said Cash. "It was always just about winning and to a point where it was life a gift and a curse, I guess, because that's all he was driven about at that point in time in between the lines...I've sat and had conversations with coach Auriemma -- people like that who have coached the game and won a lot of championships. But someone that played the game like him -- that really was so selfless -- and was able to collect all these accolades and not care about anything but just winning is just unbelievable."
Although nobody on the team would share specific details about exactly what Russell told them or what stories he shared with them, it was quite clear that the meeting had an impact, not just in terms of how to win, but how to carry oneself as a winner. As someone who appreciates the women's game for its similarities to how he played the game, it's hard to find a better person than Russell to learn about building a championship legacy.
"There were a few different things he talked to us about, but for me some of the things he said to me I'd just rather keep it personal and just wait till the series is over because it's invaluable knowledge that you can get from him," said Cash. "Just to hear the stories -- it was amazing."