2022 Bostonian of the year
Bill Russell: The best there ever was, on the court and off
The greatest winner in North American team sports history played with class and dignity. Even foes felt privileged to be in his presence.
The first words Bill Russell ever spoke to Red Auerbach were “I’m sorry.”
Auerbach, the Celtics coach and general manager, had come to see his first-round draft choice play an exhibition game prior to the 1956 Olympics. Russell’s performance had been underwhelming, and afterward Russell stuck out his hand and apologized.
Auerbach was stunned. “For what?” he inquired.
“For the way I played tonight,” Russell said. “I don’t usually play that way. It’s the worst I ever played in my life and I’m sorry you had to see it.”
At that moment Auerbach knew he had selected the right man, as well as the right player.
It is a given that Russell was an athlete ahead of his time. “I could kick the net and jump up and touch the top of the backboard,” he told me in advance of a 1999 tribute to him at the then-FleetCenter. “I introduced the vertical game to basketball.”
That four-hour dinner, during which we literally closed The Capital Grille in Providence, ranks as one of my career highlights. Russ was in peak form, capping many of his priceless stories with his famed cackle. No one laughed heartier than Bill Russell.
His basketball expertise led to his becoming the greatest documented winner in North American team sports history. From 1955 to 1969, his teams competed for 16 championships: two NCAAs, the 1956 Olympics, and 13 NBA titles. The Russell-led teams just happened to emerge victorious in 14 of them. That case is forever closed.
What matters equally is the How, and not merely the What. Bill Russell won and (on the few occasions it actually happened) lost with class and dignity. Opponents were only depredated, never vanquished. His personally elevated standards made foes feel privileged just to be in his presence. “I’m not much for talking about other players,” St. Louis Hawks Hall of Famer Bob Pettit once said, “but I’ll take my hat off to Bill Russell as a basketball player and a man anytime I’m asked to.”
You often hear nowadays about the need to improve a team’s “culture.” The Auerbach and Russell Celtics always had it, as Willie Naulls discovered when he joined the team in the twilight of his career. “Bill Russell just took over my life,” Naulls said later. “He picked me up and took me every place, including his home. I took his bed. I ate his food.”
Russell’s generosity and concern for others wasn’t restricted to his teammates. He likewise introduced Pumpsie Green to the ins and outs of Boston in 1959, when Green became the first Black player to join the Red Sox.
Russell lived his life as he saw fit, and thus became a prominent player in the civil rights battles of his era. When Jackie Robinson died in 1972, most of the pallbearers were Dodger teammates and baseball players — except Bill Russell.
“You were Jackie’s favorite athlete,” he was told by Robinson’s widow, Rachel.
Speaking of cases being closed . . .
Bob Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.