Basketball aficionados argue until they are blue in the face about whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the GOAT (greatest of all time). But there never has even been a debate about who was the most successful. Bill Russell’s 11 professional championships in 13 years, two collegiate titles and an Olympic gold put him in a league of his own.
But that record alone would not justify an encomium to Russell, who died this week at the age of 88, in a newspaper which was unobtainable in America when he was at his playing peak.
He was not merely a giant on the court — the most analytical and intelligent player that no less an authority than Bill Bradley, Rhodes scholar, US senator and, oh, a vital cog on a fine New York Knicks team, had ever seen — but he stood even taller off it.
He marched with Martin Luther King on Washington in 1963, he was with the family of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, the day after the civil rights leader was shot dead, and he was at Muhammad Ali’s side when the boxer refused to be drafted into the army. Decades later, he was four square behind Colin Kaepernick, as the football quarterback protested against racism and police violence.
For years athletes had chosen not to speak out on the great social issues of the day for fear of offending fans or sponsors, or both. It is still the case that sports personalities generally do not like to speak out politically. Two conspicuous exceptions happen to be basketball coaches — Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich. Another is the golfer Rory McIlroy. Michael Jordan once famously explained his silence with the words “Republicans buy sneakers, too”, and it is only very recently that LeBron James has started expressing political opinions. Such reticence was never in Russell’s DNA.
William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana, where his father worked in a paper bag factory before moving the family to Oakland, California, when his son was nine. A basketball star at high school, he was recruited by the University of San Francisco and led their team to successive national championships before being drafted by the Boston Celtics.
He was the only black player on the team and Boston, for all its reputation these days as a bastion of liberalism, was in the 1950s a gritty, predominantly white town with no love for African Americans.
His house there was ransacked when he was away, and faeces left on the bed. All those championships from 1957 onwards warmed the city to him, but he never forgot the early hatred he experienced. His whole life, he said he played for the Celtics, never for the city of Boston. When he retired, he moved immediately to the West Coast.
The keys to his success were his own ability and his relationship with his coach, Arnold Jacob Auerbach, known to all as Red. Auerbach let Russell play in a style that seemed inimitable and, recognising the athlete’s extraordinary leadership qualities, turned the coaching job over to Russell in his last three seasons (during which he won his last two championships).
Russell was tall, at 6ft 10in, but lean, weighing 220lbs — he was by no means the biggest player in the game. What he perfected was the art of rebounding a missed shot or blocking it, not out of bounds as most did, but tapping to a teammate or even himself, thus starting a fast break in the other direction. This ability was enhanced by hours of analysing the angles and speed with which missed shots came back into play.
His great rivalry was with Wilt Chamberlain, three inches taller and 60lbs heavier. “The Stilt” generally got his points but Russell’s team invariably won. The veteran sports writer Charlie Pierce calculated that at high school, college, the Olympics and the NBA, Russell played in 24 games in which a championship was on the line. He never lost one.
He was not a man of many words, but in a second career as a broadcaster, he made them count. And his trademark high pitched cackle was unforgettable. As to his philosophy of life, he said in an interview in 1963, “I don’t work for acceptance. I am what I am. If you like it, that’s nice. If not, I couldn’t care less.”
Another American sporting legend died this week — Vin Scully, the broadcaster who was baseball’s equivalent to cricket’s John Arlott. When Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth’s home run record in Atlanta in 1974, Scully said “what a marvellous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South.” Bill Russell probably cackled in agreement.
Source: Financial Times