Growing up in Brookline before playing for Northeastern in the mid 1960s, Rick Weitzman was enchanted by the Celtics and their sprawling dynasty.
So it was a dream come true when they selected him in the 10th round of the 1967 NBA draft, even if his odds of making the roster were long.
The 6-foot-2-inch guard was prepared to battle other hopefuls and long shots at rookie camp. Then on the first day, he saw the team’s center and head coach, Bill Russell, lacing up his sneakers.
“It was a thrill just to play in a scrimmage with him,” Weitzman said. “As a local kid, I grew up idolizing the Celtics.”
Weitzman had no idea this would be the start of a rare friendship between a 21-year-old Jewish man from Massachusetts whose NBA career would last just one season and a 33-year-old Black man from Louisiana who was perhaps the greatest basketball player of all-time. And he certainly had no idea it would bloom in the back seats of taxicabs.
“In my mind, he changed my life,” Weitzman said by phone Sunday, after Russell died at the age of 88.
During training camp that season, Weitzman felt that his spot on the team was tenuous. A year earlier, in Russell’s first season as player/coach, the Celtics’ streak of eight consecutive NBA championships had been snapped with a loss to the 76ers in the Eastern Division finals.
The Celtics were focused on redemption, and how much could a 10th-round pick from Northeastern really help?
When Weitzman made the team, he was thrilled and relieved and eager. But he was also a rookie. And in 1967, NBA life was hardly luxurious and traveling parties were small. So rookies were given chores during road trips.
Point guard Mal Graham had to bring the basketballs. Forward Johnny Jones carried the equipment bag. And Weitzman was tasked with transporting Russell’s suitcase that held his No. 6 uniform. He even hung it up for him after games.
But the two hit it off, and Russell seemed intrigued by Weitzman’s world view. So he soon made an unusual request that Weitzman took as a privilege: On the road, Weitzman was to knock on Russell’s hotel room door when it was time to go to the arena, and the two would take a taxi there together.
“It’d be just the two of us, and we’d have these great philosophical conversations on the way to games,” Weitzman said. “We’d talk about the state of the world and have all of these interesting discussions outside the game of basketball. We never talked about basketball, just life.”
The rides usually lasted about 15 minutes, depending on the city and the traffic. Weitzman cherished these exclusive audiences with an all-time great. And the fact that Russell kept coming along made Weitzman believe that he didn’t mind them, either.
When they arrived at the arena, the focus switched to basketball. Weitzman would pay the cab fare before getting reimbursed by the Celtics’ athletic trainer later.
“But he knew the cost of each ride,” Weitzman said with a chuckle, “so I couldn’t even make any money on it.”
Weitzman appeared in just 25 games that season, averaging 1.3 points and 0.4 rebounds. Still, the Celtics accomplished their goal and won yet another NBA title.
After a preseason road game the following year, Russell quietly told Weitzman that he should go see general manager Red Auerbach when the team returned to Boston. Weitzman knew that his Celtics career probably was ending, but something else about the situation bothered him just as much.
“I regretted that Russell didn’t tell me himself,” he said.
He thought their friendship meant more. When Weitzman met with Auerbach, he was told that he was indeed being released. A few days later, Russell called and asked Weitzman if he could meet him at a restaurant.
“And during the lunch, he looked at me and said, ‘Listen, I consider you a friend for life, and when it came time to release you, I didn’t have the guts to do it,’ ” Weitzman recalled. “I’m sitting here looking at him thinking this is the greatest player of all-time telling me this. I just gained even more respect for him as a person after that. He was great to me.”
Weitzman, now 76, went on to be a commentator on Celtics radio broadcasts before working as a team scout. He and Russell did not cross paths often, but whenever they did, the conversation was easy and engaging, as if they were in the back of a taxi together once again.