I didn't like Bill Russell. Back then he was an S.O.B.
I didn't know Russell as one of our great athlete-citizens, a guy who, after the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, came down to Jim Crow Mississippi to conduct the first-ever integrated basketball camp in the state. While Russell slept in a undersized bed in a Jackson motel, Evers' brother Charles slept in a chair with a rifle across his lap and other Black men stood guard outside. They treated the death threats seriously because murderers had made them.
I didn't know about that, and if I had I wouldn't have understood anyway. All I knew was Russell beat my team. I was a Lakers fan. He was anathema. Back when my heart could still be broken by basketball, Russell was a serial offender.
Even after I accepted his importance in our society, there was a time when I would have argued he was not truly one of the greatest basketball players of all time, merely a very good player who had the good fortune of playing his entire career on great teams.
Time was when I would have pointed out that he was not a very good offensive player--or at least not an elite scorer--and that his prodigious rebound totals were inflated by the prevailing conditions of his era (there were an awful lot more missed shots to chase down in the '60s). There was a time when I could have made a case against Russell.
But then, I'm like the divinity student interviewing for a position who's asked about his views on the Holy Spirit. I can preach it both ways, Elders, whatever you need. I can argue for Russell as the greatest ever, and I've been witness to Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Bird.
But those kind of G.O.A.T. discussions can be boring, and even though I remember Russell as a player, memory is a funhouse mirror. Russell was one of those figures who was present when I first became aware that there were interesting people who had no idea I existed, people like Mickey Mantle and Marilyn Monroe and Ringo Starr, and so it is only natural that he occupies a lot of space in my particular pantheon. He has always been there.
And his story resonated with me. Russell was a man of fierce dignity, born in West Monroe, La., and reared in Oakland, Calif. He was not a skilled high school player; he had talent but "atrocious fundamentals," according to the only scout who recruited him, Hal DeJulio, an unpaid assistant coach at Oakland High School, who recommended Russell to coach Phil Woolpert of the University of San Francisco on the basis of his pure athleticism and instincts.
"I knew once he got him in there and saw him run and jump, he'd see he had a man from Mars--something he'd never seen," DeJulio once said of his pitch to Woolpert. "He had incredible timing, speed, and he was intelligent right from the start. Russell's the greatest basketball player who ever lived."
I doubt that. But what is indisputable is that Russell has the best resume of any basketball player ever. He led the USF Dons--a private Jesuit University that excelled in football and basketball in the '50s--to the 1955 and 1956 NCAA National Championships, going undefeated in 1956.
Then, in a 13-year NBA career, Russell's Boston Celtics won 11 championships. From 1959 to 1969, they faced the Lakers in the finals seven times. Seven times they faced the Lakers in the finals; seven times they sent my team home empty- handed.
We put too much emphasis on championships when evaluating players in team sports. There's only so much a single player can control (though a surpassing basketball talent can affect a game much more than any individual football or baseball player; Mike Trout cannot will the California Angels into the World Series, and Tom Brady's career would look much different if he hadn't spent all those years yoked to Bill Belichick).
Russell changed the game in some not so subtle ways. His ability to block shots, control rebounds and throw fast-break outlet passes dictated the Celtics' offense even if he was not the greatest shooter or scorer. But his game was less exciting than those of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson or Elgin Baylor.
I saw him up close once, in the '80s, standing next to Bird. He would have been in his late 50s then, and I was surprised that Bird seemed to be the larger man. Russell was often listed at 6 feet 10 inches, but the 6-foot-9 Bird seemed at least an inch taller. And Russell was a relative whippet when he played, less than 220 pounds.
There were only three men taller than him when he came into the league, when basketball was still largely an earthbound game of chest passes and set shots. When Russell leapt, he made everybody leap; he single-handedly transformed the sport from a plodding game of angles to a fluid above-the-rim ballet. He injected athleticism into basketball in much the same way Jackie Robinson brought jazz to baseball and Tiger Woods brought fitness to golf.
Athletes get better every generation, though the effect is sometimes exaggerated.
Zap Jesse Owens circa 1936 into a modern context, give him state-of-the-art shoes, starting blocks and a Mondo synthetic track, and he wouldn't beat Usain Bolt, but he might test him. Give him the advantages of modern training and nutrition, and who knows?
I'll take West, Robertson, Chamberlain, Baylor, John Havlicek, Rick Barry, Sam Jones and Russell--who played a significant portion of their careers in the '60s--and put them up against any team you can dream up. I'm not sure they'd consistently beat a Jordan-Magic-Bird-Jabbar squad, but they'd be competitive. Anyone who thinks there'd be no place for Bill Russell in today's NBA is callow and ahistorical.
And Russell always thought he was underappreciated, especially by Boston fans who thought that Bob Cousy's retirement meant the end of their dynasty (and who later showered Bird with love they'd never shown Russell). But it's worth noting that while conventional wisdom holds Chamberlain and his Ruthian statistics were accorded more respect than Russell's in his day, Russell actually won five MVP awards to Chamberlain's four.
Somebody thought he was pretty good.
The greatest ever? That's just content for the sports talk crowd. What matters more is the conviction with which he lived. Bill Russell was never a brand; never--as the LIV golfers style themselves--a business. He was simply and most honorably, a human being of great character and will. A type so archaic that few of us even see him as a possible model anymore.
I did not like that S.O.B. But I loved that man.