Wayne Embry was a five-time NBA All-Star with the Cincinnati Royals before retiring at just 29 in 1966 to help run a Pepsi distributorship, then a more lucrative venture than pro basketball. But before he took off his sneakers for good, he was contacted by his friend and former opponent, Celtics legend Bill Russell, who asked if he might reconsider and come to Boston.
Russell had guided the Celtics to nine championships in his first 10 seasons as a player but was now preparing for a new challenge: In addition to playing center and battling players such as Wilt Chamberlain, he also would be Boston’s coach.
Embry arrived at his first training camp practice out of shape and wore a rubber suit over his uniform because it was believed that would help him sweat off some weight. Russell was familiar with his players because he had been winning titles with most of them. And they were familiar with him, and that probably made one of them comfortable enough to hide Russell’s sneakers on his first day as coach.
Then Russell made it clear that he was in charge.
“We practiced for two hours without using a basketball,” Embry recalled with a laugh. “We did every drill you could imagine. After practice, I opened up that rubber suit and water just flowed out.”
Russell is well-known as one of the greatest players in NBA history. He was a 12-time All-Star, a five-time MVP, and an 11-time champion. His time as a coach received considerably less fanfare, but it was impactful.
He was the first Black coach in league history and he led the Celtics to a pair of championships in three seasons. He guided the Seattle SuperSonics to two playoff appearances during his four years there from 1973-77, and he coached part of one season with the Sacramento Kings in 1987-88 before being fired.
Russell has been in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player since 1975, and on Saturday he will enter the Hall as a coach, too, becoming the fifth man to receive this double honor, following John Wooden, Lenny Wilkens, Tommy Heinsohn, and Bill Sharman.
“I think he’s really excited about it,” Embry said. “It’s long overdue.”
Russell’s former players described him as an intensely competitive coach who also enjoyed serving as a mentor, particularly away from the court. He helped players find homes, went to restaurants with them after games, and counseled them on life and basketball.
He was not considered a basketball tactician. In Seattle, an assistant coach drew up most of the plays. But Russell was flexible and frequently sought the input of his players. Also, he commanded respect for obvious reasons.
“He was Bill Russell,” said former Celtics guard Don Chaney, “and if you didn’t understand that, you just didn’t get it. There was no Knute Rockne rah-rah stuff. He was all business. But he hated to lose.”
Russell replaced Red Auerbach as Boston’s coach for the 1966-67 season, and the Celtics went 60-21 before losing to the 76ers in the Eastern Division finals. That would be a successful year for many teams, but it snapped Boston’s streak of eight consecutive NBA titles.
In the locker room after the loss to the 76ers, Embry said, Russell was calm and focused. He told his players it was time to start preparing for next year and insisted that the result would be different.
There had been some growing pains that year as Russell navigated this new role as both the team’s star and its coach. He did not even have any assistants. At a preseason meeting the following year, Russell made it clear that his players and teammates were his equals, and he wanted their help. If they noticed something during the flow of a game or had an idea about a certain scheme, they should tell him. If players were tired, they should let him know.
“I respected that,” Embry said, “because I think it indicated his intelligence, but also his willingness to listen. Most coaches don’t do that, and I think it was a big factor in us turning things around.”
Added former Celtics forward Rick Weitzman, “If someone had an idea in the huddle, they were free to speak up. And he listened and took in what was being suggested. If he liked it, he’d go with it, and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t. He made the final decisions, but he listened to everybody.”
Russell faced unusual challenges as a player/coach. He averaged a team-high 37.9 minutes per game in 1967-68 and had to balance blocking shots and grabbing rebounds with sending in subs, drawing up plays, and calling timeouts.
The Celtics generally started games with a scripted substitution pattern, with players heading to the scorer’s table on their own. But that process became more jumbled as games progressed, leaving Russell to make the calls.
“The hardest thing to me, in his position, would have been critiquing himself,” Chaney said. “He took himself out of the game when he wasn’t contributing or he was tired, and I thought that was hard to do. But he’d calls plays whether they included him or not.”
The Celtics ran variations of just six plays, and most of the veterans already knew them well. But Russell was not afraid to make timely adjustments.
Prior to Game 7 of the 1968 Eastern Division finals against the 76ers, Russell sat down with Embry and said he wanted to make an unusual switch. When Embry was in the game, he would be tasked with defending Philadelphia’s own superstar center, Chamberlain, and Russell would slide over and defend forward Chet Walker.
Embry said that Chamberlain thanked Russell when he saw the change, but it did not work out in Philadelphia’s favor. Walker went just 8 for 22, Chamberlain attempted only 9 shots, and the Celtics grabbed a 100-96 win to advance to the NBA Finals, where they defeated the Lakers.
“Chet Walker never had a guy like Bill Russell guard him,” Embry said. “It disrupted his effectiveness.”
On to Seattle
Russell’s approach was somewhat understated. He was not known to yell at referees or give motivational speeches or celebrate big wins. But his steady leadership was evident in subtle ways.
On the bench, veterans and young players alternated seats so the older players could share insight during games. Afterward, Russell often pulled inexperienced players aside and discussed what they had done right and wrong.
“He’s one of those people that when he speaks, you hear him,” Chaney said. “All eyes were on him.”
During Chaney’s rookie season, Russell invited his fellow Louisiana native to live with him for a few weeks to help him get acclimated. Chaney joked that the only uneasy part of that arrangement came when Russell, who had a deep love of sports cars, would give Chaney rides and mostly thumb his nose at speed limits.
Russell guided the Celtics to another NBA title in 1968-69 before retiring as a player and a coach. Then in 1973, he returned as head coach and general manager of the SuperSonics.
Hall of Famer Spencer Haywood said that while his Seattle teammates respected Russell’s place in the game’s history, some were skeptical of his coaching acumen, and that created some challenges. But Haywood was rapt.
He had met Russell in Detroit when he was a child and had remained a fan. He soaked up wisdom any way he could. After most games, Haywood and Russell went to 13 Coins restaurant in downtown Seattle, where they’d talk about everything from the game the team had just played to Russell’s life experiences.
In 1975, Russell invited Seattle University star Frank Oleynick and his coach to his home prior to the draft. By the end of the visit, Russell told Oleynick that the SuperSonics intended to select him with the 12th pick, and they did. When Oleynick was house-hunting during his rookie season, Russell went with him to inspect a home he was looking at. Russell told him it was too expensive.
Later that year, Oleynick’s playing time dipped and Russell pulled him aside and said that the current players weren’t confident enough in their own standing to boost him up. He would have to stay focused and stay confident.
“And he was right,” Oleynick said. “I thought his coaching style was different than anything I’d ever imagined. But he gave players as much responsibility as you could.”
Russell was a civil rights pioneer throughout his time with the Celtics. In 1961, he led a player protest before a game against the St. Louis Hawks in Lexington, Ky., after several players were denied service at a restaurant. He attended the March on Washington in 1963, and a year later was part of a Celtics team that became the first to start five Black players.
Years later, in his leadership role as the coach of the SuperSonics, he called a meeting and said that the team’s Black and white players did not seem to spend much time together off the court. It bothered him.
“He said it almost reminded him of segregation from when he played,” Oleynick recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t know for sure, but I think you guys would be a better team if you were more together.’ ”