Bill Russell was arguably the most successful athlete in history, at least in terms of wins. His high school, college, Olympic, and professional teams all won a lot and lost rarely. That, and his being a black man in a majority white culture who thought independently makes the perspective in his memoir, Second Wind an educational one.
Race has always been a big part of the history of this country. It shaped Russell, though he escaped the worst effects of it. How did he? One reason is his family. His paternal grandfather and parents were all smart and independent people. The other was because of his career as an athlete, one of the two areas (with music) in which African Americans have been relatively well accepted. The key word there is relatively, as his prominence also exposed him to racism.
Perhaps it’s to be expected that many white people are unconscious of racism, since it doesn’t directly affect them, but the whole syndrome seems curious. Why skin color (as well as religious beliefs, gender, and politics) should so influence people’s behavior is mysterious, not least because (at least as manifested in the Americas) it’s a fairly recent phenomenon. While xenophobia was part of the ancient world, racism as we now know it doesn’t seem to have been, nor was it attached to slavery (a fact of human existence for all the time we know of) before the last five hundred years.
Russell was born and spent his early childhood in Louisiana and was impressed with the racism of the Deep South. His paternal grandfather refused to be intimidated, even by the Ku Klux Klan. When warned they were going to visit him, he first got his family out of the way, then waited in his house. He heard a number of people drive up, then one tell him to come out. He said they’d have to come in after him. Someone fired a shot, and he started shooting his shotgun as fast as he could, then heard them drive away.
Russell says that during his childhood members of his community sometimes disappeared. Perhaps they simply left the area without telling anyone. Sometimes people speculated that white people had gotten them, though. His grandfather’s experience suggests there was reason to believe that whites had made some people simply disappear.
Two incidents made his parents decide to move from Louisiana to California. One was when a white policeman harangued Russell’s mother because she was wearing clothes he considered should have been reserved for a white woman. The other when his father stopped at a gas station to refuel. The attendant filled the car ahead of them, then chatted with the driver for a long time. Another car pulled in, and he served them before the Russells. Russell’s father went to drive away, and the attendant started cussing him out for it. His father went to the back of the car and came back with a tire iron. The attendant turned and ran. Russell and his older brother thought this was great. Their father said no, it WASN’T great. He had lost control of himself, could have killed the attendant, ruined his own life, and the lives of his family. Russell’s parents had already talked about moving to a different part of the country where their two sons could more easily obtain a higher education, so they moved to Oakland, California, and stayed there even after his mother died young, when he was twelve. He was affected by that, but not as much as one might think. His father exhorted them to responsibility, and took a job enabling him to be with Russell and his older brother every night.
As he became a teenager, Russell began thinking more about race. He read a book that said slaves were better off in America than in Africa, and felt attacked in an essential way. To balance that, he also read about Christophe, one of the leaders of the Haitian revolution. Christophe told British representatives that his army was more disciplined than theirs, and to prove it, told one of the companies of his army to march off the wall of his castle. The whole company did, and he said that had saved lives because the British decided not to fight them. Russell admits the man was a monster, but says he was fascinated because he’d never heard of a black man so dynamic.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the book is the section titled Magic, in which Russell tells how he embarked on the process that took him to the top of the basketball world.
It began in high school, when he was 16 years old. He was walking down a hall and suddenly the thought came to him that he was all right, and everything was all right. He didn’t know where it came from, but it felt powerful. Until then he had felt intimidated by everyone, and everyone seemed to believe there was something wrong with him. Unfortunately for him, he agreed with them. This revelation changed his attitude. He now believed that people who picked on him did so because there was something wrong with THEM, and began to feel comfortable defending himself. He saw the feeling changing his life as magical, but was uncomfortable allowing magic to dominate his world, believing it would ultimately narrow his world instead of widening it. The next place that he found magical was basketball.
He had played basketball through high school, but not well. The last game he played for his team before graduating in January he scored 14 points, more than he ever had before. A scout happened to be in the stands, saw him, and recommended him for an All Star team organized specifically for boys who graduated that time of the year which traveled up the west coast into Canada and back, playing games almost every day. Immersed in basketball, Russell began to see how to make offensive and rebounding moves, seeing how others made them, making pictures of them in his mind, and learning how to do them himself.
It happened that this was a time when the game was changing. The set shot was being superseded by the jump shot, which many coaches hated, but players liked. Russell particularly loved running and jumping, the coach of the All Star team let them play the way they wanted to, and he not only began learning to score, but also to block shots. He didn’t realize at the time that defense would be what he did best, he just enjoyed jumping, and being left-handed made it easier for him to block right-handed shots.
He made progress fast, and when he returned from the tour, found that a scout had been to see his father about him possibly playing for a college. He and his father were both glad, as his parents wanted him and his brother to be educated, and it hadn’t looked as if college would be possible. He tried out, and got a scholarship to the University of San Francisco. There he continued to learn the game, eventually helped the team win two national championships in a row, played on a team that toured Latin America and won all its games, played on the 1956 Olympic team, then joined the Boston Celtics, who then won the championship 11 of the next 13 years.
He says that the common link on all his teams was that almost all of them won, and he played on all of them. But one of them, his San Francisco team in his sophomore year, had only a mediocre record. This, he says, proved that he wasn’t the only factor in winning. He was trying hard all season, but the team atmosphere wasn’t good, and the frustration decided him to become a great player. The next two seasons the troublemakers were gone, and the team played well.
His experience with the Celtics was that they all liked each other, though he didn’t acquire many deep friendships there, and that they won because they knew how. Although they all had the athletic ability to be professional, it was strong-mindedness more than anything that was essential. Their individual goals didn’t conflict, and they understood what each person had to contribute in order to win. Winning didn’t make them more moral than anyone else, and Russell says that their maturity on the court was compensated for by immaturity off it. Most of the team were married, but ran around with women they weren’t married to. So did he.
One deep friendship he did acquire was with Red Auerbach, coach of the Celtics. Until he reached the Celtics he had had little reason to like white people. He hadn’t felt that his college or Olympic coaches understood what he was doing, and didn’t expect that a coach would. Auerbach did, however, valued what he did, and gave him insights about the game to help him improve. Russell commented later that if he’d been taken by another team he might have merely acquired a reputation as a player with a bad attitude. He didn’t feel any necessity to pretend that racism didn’t surround him; he often felt a need to confront it.
One such episode came later, when a company asked him to participate in one of their ads, trying to sell it as an opportunity to do something for black people, offered to pay him scale for it, and didn’t understand when he turned them down. He explained that he didn’t need the exposure they offered, that he was already prominent, and that they wanted to rent that prominence–cheap. The company’s representative still didn’t understand.
Being a professional turned basketball into a job. Continuing to win was more difficult than winning initially, and as a star player (and later coach) he felt the responsibility to play in the way his team needed him to play to win, even when he would have preferred to be anywhere else. The way he had learned the game helped him later, when everyone was gunning for the Celtics. He remembered that he hadn’t been a basketball natural, and that he’d had to work hard to learn how to play. At the same time, the process that had made him a professional had been extremely unlikely. Once he had decided to become professional (itself an unlikely decision, as basketball wasn’t established as a major sport then), the magic began to go away. He relied more on techniques he had already learned than on anything that he came across while playing.
Still, the magic came every now and then, when his team and another were playing hard in close competition. This seemed to raise the game to a different level which was so exhilarating that though he was trying hard to win, on some level he didn’t really care who won. Such spells were fragile, and something he didn’t feel comfortable enough to talk about. Responsibility may have made the magic harder to access, but it didn’t shut if off completely.
Another place the magic came was when he traveled to Africa to show children the game of basketball. They seemed to become almost as fascinated with the game as he had been.
Russell had been very shy growing up, but after becoming an adult, found that he learned a great deal from women. One woman in particular stimulated him intellectually by talking with him for hours and finding him books to read on subjects of interest.
One such subject was what happened when French Guinea became independent of France. France was so happy to be asked to leave the country that they tore up railroad tracks and destroyed other infrastructure on the way out. Sekou Toure, the leader of the country, asked the USA for aid, and was turned down, because we had friendly relations with France. When Toure was turned down, he asked the USSR for aid. America became concerned that Guinea was going Communist. They weren’t going Communist or Capitalist, they simply didn’t have the kinds of trained people qualified to run the country. The ideology didn’t apply.
Russell adds that despite French behavior in Guinea he admired General DeGaulle because he had gotten rid of French colonies (although he wanted France to be glorious) when he saw that colonies weren’t in the interest of France.
Another woman he mentions was a manipulator who he said he knew he shouldn’t get involved with, but couldn’t resist. She was a hustler, and introduced him to other hustlers. Getting to know her and them was interesting for him, but also for them. They didn’t feel able to resist being abused by white authorities, while Russell was trying to keep anyone from abusing him, white or black. Sometimes his name protected him in these confrontations; other times it got him into trouble, he says, especially when people asked him for autographs. He eventually refused to sign these, on principle, as people were so insulting in demanding them.
Later, after retiring, he gave lectures in colleges, and would often provide an example by calling a volunteer to the stage and pretending to choke him. He would say, “It’s all right to choke him because he’s a Nazi.” He would let the volunteer go sometimes, and the volunteer might say, “I’m not a Nazi,” but he could only say that when he wasn’t being choked. This was an analogy of American behavior to Guinea (as well as much else), which Russell calls “label and dismiss”. He labeled the volunteer as a Nazi, and dismissed the fact that he was choking him. The technique is still applied widely.
He also refused to allow the police to mistreat him. Once in Boston a policeman asked him to come to the station, and he refused to go, since he hadn’t committed any offense. Once the officer checked his license and realized who he was, they let him go. Another time, in LA, a policeman stopped him and said they’d had complaints about cars like his being stolen. Russell asked him what kind of car it was, and the policeman couldn’t tell him. These incidents of more than forty years ago echo incidents that have been publicized in the past two years.
Another incident mirroring later events is when, in the 1950s, a judge sentenced a young black man to 66 years in prison for smoking weed. This, said Russell, sent shockwaves through the black community. The white community didn’t notice until whites started smoking marijuana (among other things), when the penalties got drastically reduced–for whites. Likewise, later sentencing practices with cocaine: sentences for crack (more often used by blacks) are much higher than sentences for powder (more frequently used by whites).
As Russell puts it, the ego is a paradox: the place from which we see, but which also makes us blind. It can make us feel small or high and mighty. He notes the 1958 season, when he was the most valuable player in the NBA, but put on none of the all star teams by white sports writers as an example of the sort of contortions racism forces people to go through. He says he tries to handle his ego like any other part of his character. To defend it, but also keep it under control. Some, he says, try to subordinate their egos to institutions or other individuals. He prefers to take responsibility for his ego, and neither let it run his life nor cause others to suffer.
It seems almost strange that so much of Russell’s memoir has to do with racism, until you remember that it was his generation in which the Civil Rights movement really began accomplishing things. If he experienced racism, so must most of the people in his age group. Maybe it’s curious that his later experiences with it had fewer repercussions than if they’d happened in the Deep South. On the other hand, he reports being upset after driving through the South with his two young children and being unable to feed them in restaurants or stay in hotels. Maybe the seriousness of what could happen to him diminished in other parts of the country, even if the quality of the disdain was similar. Is his experience still common in the black community? I suspect it is, though I can’t say for certain.
His question seems to have been less about how racism came about, which interests me, than how to reply to it. He subscribed to what his father said: “Nonviolent is what I am before someone hits me.” People didn’t literally hit him in later life, but he found it curious that people in Boston supported Martin Luther King–at first. He thought perhaps it was because people didn’t think King’s message would change their lives. When they found it might, their tune changed. Geography didn’t do away with racism.
Ultimately, the book isn’t all racism all the time. It’s about the development of one person, who happens to be black. Racism is mentioned because it was a lot of his experience, but the second half of the book is about his experiments in living after his athletic career. He mentions racism in that section occasionally, since it was still present, but his focus is on what he learned and how he decided to live. Racism was unavoidable for him, but wasn’t the most important thing in his life, any more than the game of basketball was. He felt about basketball the way an artist feels about what he or she does, but when basketball was over it was finished for him. A great learning experience, but no more. I don’t think I know of any athlete who has shared shared so much of his life besides the record of the sport he played. That in itself makes his memoir an unusually rich one.