Bill Russell


Bill Russell, famous center of the Boston Celtics in the 1950’s and 60’s, is arguably the most interesting sports figure in my lifetime. I was too young to be aware of what he was doing in the 50’s, and in the 60’s rooted against eh Celtics, without really understanding what they were doing. I just didn’t like sports dynasties. Only much later did I get some appreciation of the man and his accomplishments.

I read his first autobiography about the time it came out, about 1965 or 66. Though I wasn’t old enough to really appreciate it, it was clear that he was an intelligent man, and interested in more than just his sport. His second autobiography came out in the 1980’s, and it was clear that he’d had time to put his life into perspective (and I’d had time to gain a more grownup point of view).

His life was unusual in a number of ways. He was born in Louisiana, always a very racist state, but his grandfather was widely respected, and even white people thought twice before messing with him. His parents were both very intelligent, urging him to stand up for himself and to achieve. They particularly emphasized education, and Russell was receptive to that. When he was just entering his teens his mother died–a terrible trauma for the whole family–and his father made an unusual decision: he took Russell and his older brother Charlie, with him to Oakland, California instead of leaving them to be raised by other relations in Louisiana, and he never remarried, though that would probably have made his life easier, in the interest of working fulltime, and also being a fulltime parent. Not many would ever make that choice.

Meanwhile Bill Russell was getting tall, and becoming attracted to basketball. It was never a foregone conclusion that he would become a great athlete: he had to work hard to become one. One influence he noted was that playing on the outside courts you could only keep playing if you won. If you lost, you had to stop, and probably wait a long time before you could play again. He didn’t want to wait, so he wanted to win, and being intelligent, he began to think about how to go about winning.

It so happened that he was beginning to get good at basketball at a time when the game was changing. Until the early 50’s basketball offense had primarily been layups and set shots. In the 50’s the jumpshot entered the game and changed it. At the same time Russell was beginning to get good, a process that came to a climax when he had the chance to travel with a sort of all-star high school basketball team, where he began putting his ideas into practice, and attracting attention that led to a scholarship at the University of San Francisco.

Getting that scholarship made his father happy, but also made Russell happy. He wasn’t the sort of athlete who was interested in his sport and nothing else. San Francisco was a Catholic university, and demanded work from its students, and Russell didn’t mind complying. He found worlds outside of basketball opening up to him at the same time that he was being an extremely successful player on the court, leading his team to two straight national championships, and then leading the Olympic team to a gold medal in 1956. He had found a friend at the university, K.C, Jones, another talented and intelligent player, and together they worked out strategies to help their team win. The irony of all was, Russell said, that neither his college nor Olympic coach had a clue as to what he was doing on the basketball floor. They were more concerned with their egos, and with being the boss of their teams.

After his overwhelmingly successful college career there was no doubt that Russell was going to be drafted by the NBA. Red Auerbach, coach of the Boston Celtics (and coach in those days meant he was also general manager, organizer of food-vending, the one who counted the house to make sure the team got paid appropriately, etc) decided Russell was the piece he needed to make his already successful team a legitimate contender for an NBA championship. He made a trade with the St. Louis Hawks, sending them two very good players who were popular in Boston, in exchange for the rights to Russell. The trade wasn’t popular in Boston, not only because of the loss of two well-liked players, but because Russell was black. Boston was quite a racist city, and Russell was anything but an Uncle Tom.

He said later that had he gone to any other team but Boston he might well have achieved mainly a reputation as a trouble-maker. But he said that Red Auerbach was the first coach he’d met who DID understand what he was doing on the floor. In an early conversation, Auerbach asked him, “Do you know how good you are?’ Russell said, “Yes.” The upshot of that was that Auerbach made it clear he wasn’t going to try to change what Russell was doing, but would try to help him do it better. One of the ways was to sit with him during a game and comment on what he (Auerbach) was seeing. Russell realized that Auerbach could teach him things, and that his motive wasn’t to make himself look good, but to help the team win. That fit in with what Russell was trying to do. In his second autobiography he commented, “I could probably have learned to score 25 points a game, but my team wouldn’t have won as often.”

Russell joined the Celtics halfway through the season of 1957, having played in the Olympics during the first half. The team had already been good without them, but he made them better, and they won the championship for the first time that year, and repeated again the next year. The St. Louis Hawks beat them in 1959, but after that they only lost one championship while Russell continued to play, finishing with 11 championships in the 13 years of his career, a record that is unlikely to ever be approached. Since that time Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls have been the closest competition, and however awe-inspiring 6 chanpionships in 8 years is, it still doesn’t compare,

Obviously, Bill Russell was interested in race and the conflict between races. He writes of having discovered the Haitian Revolution while in college, and having been intrigued by one of the leading figures in it, who wasn’t a particularly nice character (and not, in my eyes, of the stature of Toussaint L’Ouverture), but someone who had achieved things, something that blacks were supposedly unable to do. His experiences with whites hadn’t disposed him to like or trust them generally, but when he met Red Auerbach he found a white man he could respect, and eventually become friends with. Both were interested primarily in winning: race and ego were side-issues to  that. Auerbach respected Russell, and got respect back.

Russell wasn’t sure about Auerbach at first. At one point, during a training camp, a white and black player were competing for a spot on the roster. He predicted to one of his teammates that the white player would be retained, especially since Auerbach had commented that he sure could shoot. To his surprise, neither made the team. The white player had been a good shooter, but hadn’t had any of the other skills Auerbach demanded. In 1962 the Celtics were the first team to have an all black starting lineup, and Russelll later commented that the team was the last to notice it. It was the news media that got excited about it; the team accepted the lineup as their best chance to win.

In the mid-1960’s Auerbach was getting tired. He had been coach, and a lot of other things, of the Celtics for approaching 15 years, and was feeling exhausted. So he looked for someone to take over coaching for him. The memory he expressed of it was that he hadn’t been sure Russell would play for another coach, but knew that he would play for himself. Russell’s memory of it was that Auerbach had sat down with him to discuss the matter, and had named several NBA coaches he thought might be able to do the job. Russell said later that he frequently talked to other black players in the league, so that he had a good idea of how these coaches operated. He vetoed every one that Auerbach suggested. So Auerbach suggested that Russell become coach. At first he didn’t want to do it, he later said, but eventually decided he’d take the job. That’s how Bill Russell became the first black coach of a major professional sports team.

I rarely got to see Russell play, since I grew up without a TV, and didn’t acquire one until after he’d retired. But one of my memories of the late sixties, when he was coaching the Celtics to two more championships, was a playoff series in either 1968 or 69 (not a final) in which Russell came out and scored 30 points in each of the first two games. He was never known as a scorer, and scoring was probably the weakest part of his game, and the part he put the least effort into, but his career scoring average is 15 points a game, which is respectable. After those first two games he didn’t score much, but had made it clear to the other team that they had to play defense on him, and couldn’t ignore him to double-team others. An excellent example of scoring for the good of the team instead of the good of one’s ego. The Celtics won the series, incidentally.

And, to me, that’s the lesson Russell has embodied. Of course he had an ego, like anyone else, but he was willing to subordinate it to achieve goals. Working on a team to one’s best ability to achieve a worthwhile goal may be the closest most of us can come to achieving telepathy: knowing what your teammate is going to do before he (or she) does it, and doing what you can to help him or her succeed, knowing that he or she will do the same for you. In the end we are all, presumably, alone, but we don’t have to be alone while living. This may not be an easy lesson to learn, but it seems to me a most useful one. To me, Russell’s story is inspiring, one that people not even alive then might be able to find inspiration in too. He took the tools he’d been given, and made himself a very unlikely success. The rest of us have those possibilities too.






























































Gore Vidal died last night. I’ve been a fan of his for about 50 years now. I picked up his novel Messiah,  liked that somewhat, then picked up Julian, about the Roman emperor who tried to roll back Christianity as the state religion, and reinstate paganism. I’ve always felt that Christianity made a big mistake in becoming part of, if not the whole establishment. I think Christians generally behaved better when they were being persecuted, as opposed to doing the persecuting. And I don’t think paganism was that terrible.

But all that is beside the point. Not only was Vidal an entertaining writer, but he was, as one article already out this morning put it, a truth-teller, which tended to make powerful people nervous. He didn’t pull his punches about the failings of American government, or the people who made it fail. He wrote a play about Richard Nixon…

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