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Irish Coffee: Bill Russell, basketball’s grandfather

02.19.13 at 12:31 pm ET
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I was 12 years old when my grandfather died, and I never really got to ask him about playing for Passaic (N.J.) High’s “Wonder Team,” owners of the longest win streak (159 games) in prep basketball history and entrants into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, or about playing for Rutgers, where he apparently also took part in a handful of exhibition games under an assumed name for $25 a night. This was the 1920s, before the NBA.

So, when Bill Simmons interviewed Bill Russell, basketball’s grandfather, on NBA TV Monday, it made me feel profoundly nostalgic, jealous and robbed of so many great tales of my own basketball ancestry. But mainly I just felt lucky that we all still have this great link to Celtics past. Heck, to American history. And we should cherish that.

Russell shared captivating story after captivating story. His admiration of his father Charles, who raised his playwright brother Charlie L. and him while working for decades in an Oakland foundry. His belief he would never have played in the NBA if he hadn’t been traded from the “overwhelmingly racist” city of St. Louis in 1956 to Boston for future Hall of Famers Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan. His quiet first meeting with a young Kansas freshman named Wilt Chamberlain. His pavement of the road to professional players’ unions and big contracts, like the $100,001 one he signed in 1965 — one more dollar than Chamberlain’s deal. His support of Muhammad Ali during the heavyweight champ’s conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. And so on and so on.

He was fascinating. Here are 11 great quotes from the interview, one for every title he won for the Celtics.

Bill Russell and Red Auerbach built the Celtics into the greatest dynasty in professional sports history. (AP)

Bill Russell and Red Auerbach built the Celtics into the greatest dynasty in professional sports history. (AP)

11. Bill Russell on trophies: It’s hard to explain. Each one of those things has a story. Some of the stories are important — like the MVP of the ’63 All-Star Game in Los Angeles. That was one of the great experiences for me. I invited my father to come to the All-Star Game, and the night before [legendary Lakers broadcaster] Chick Hearn was saying, “Los Angeles is the basketball capital of the world.”

And so Red [Auerbach], in his own diplomatic way, says, “It’ll never be the center of the world until you win a championship, and you guys ain’t won nothing.” He was a real diplomat. I laughed so hard.

And so on the way home from dinner, my father said, “Yeah, they ought to shut up about that.”

I said, “What are you talking about?”

He says, “I hope you guys kick their asses.”

I said, “You feel that way?”

He said, “Yeah.”

I said, “OK, I’ll tell you what. We’ll win the game tomorrow. I’ll make sure of that. And I’ll get the MVP.”

And he said, “You can do that?”

I said, “Yeah.”

And I did it. After the game, they gave me the trophy for the MVP, which I had promised my father I would do. As far as trophies are concerned, that was the highlight of my career, because I could keep my word to my father.

10. Bill Russell on meeting Red Auerbach: I talked with Red my rookie year, and he said, “Do you know how good you are? You’re the best player playing basketball.”

I said, “I know that.”

He says, “Now, I have to confess: I don’t know what you’re doing; I’ve never seen anything like it, so I can’t help you, but what I will do is, as I figure things you’re doing, I’ll make that part of our system.”

Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain built a close relationship long before they faced each other in the NBA. (AP)

Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain built a close relationship long before they faced each other in the NBA. (AP)

9. Bill Russell on Boston’s race relations: The Boston Celtics were the first NBA team to start five black players. Now, they were rewarded for being so progressive, but the city did not appreciate it.

We did a survey about what we could do to improve attendance. Over 50 percent of the responses said, “Too many black guys.” So, the Celtics to me were a blue team in a sea of red. That means there was really no connection for me between the fans in Boston and the Boston Celtics.

I remember when [Bob] Cousy retired, a guy walks up to me in Boston and says, “What are you going to do now that you don’t have Cousy to carry you?”

So, I says, “Well, it’ll be difficult. We’ve gotta make an adjustment, but do yourself a favor and find out who the MVP of this league was the last three years.”

8. Bill Russell on Wilt Chamberlain: Wilt and I were not rivals. I tell people that, and they say, “What are you talking about?” We were competitors. You see, in a rivalry, there’s a victor and a vanquished. He was never vanquished, and so we were competitors.

7. Bill Russell on his mother Katie: Going back to my childhood, when we first moved into the projects, my mother was unpacking and I was sitting on the steps. These five kids ran by, and one of them slapped me as he was going by, so I did what 9-year-old kids do. I went home and told my mother, “The guy hit me.”

She grabbed the house keys and grabbed me, and we went all through the projects looking for those guys.

And she said, “Are these the guys?”

I said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, you’re going to fight every one of them one at a time.” There was five of them. I lost three and won two. And so I’m going home crying, and she says, “Don’t cry. You did what you had to do. You had to stand up for yourself.”

6a. Bill Russell on Jackie Robinson: Jackie Robinson was a hero to all of us, and I don’t know if you know that I was a pallbearer at Jackie Robinson’s funeral. And I had enormous respect for him. But my attitude was that Jackie took us from Point A to Point B, and I want to go from Point B to Point C. It was my inheritance from Jackie — to do things, to seize that opportunity.

6b. Bill Russell on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech: I had met him at The March on Washington. In fact, I was invited to go on the stage, but I respectfully declined, because they had been working on that for more than a year, and I hadn’t done anything and I didn’t think it was right or fair for me to go up on the stage and say, “See, I’m one of the guys.” So, I sat in the first row.

President Barack Obama bestowed the highest civilian award in the United States on Bill Russell in 2010. (AP)

President Barack Obama bestowed the highest civilian award in the United States on Bill Russell in 2010. (AP)

6c. Bill Russell on receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama: I felt honored to be on the same stage with the President. He said, “Thanks for the inspiration.” He said that I was one of the reasons that he was able to become president, because I elevated the status of behavior for black folks.

5. Bill Russell on John Havlicek: I saw John Havlicek one day sitting there, and I said, “What’s wrong with you?”

He says, “Nothing that $3,000 won’t take care of.”

I said, “What are you talking about?”

He says, “Red browbeat me into signing this contract, and I want more money, but you know how Red is.”

So, I go to Red. I said, “What did you do to John?” John Havlicek is my best ballplayer, so I said, “Red, here’s what I want you to do: Give him the $3,000 that he wants, but I don’t want you to tell him that I told you to do that.”

He said, “Why not?”

I said, “Well, Red, I’ll be gone long before John, and I want his loyalty to be to the Celtics and not to me.”

4. Bill Russell on his pregame speech prior to beating the Lakers for his 11th and final NBA championship: I said, “If this team played the best game any team in the history of this franchise ever played, they would still lose. It’s impossible for them to win tonight. Let me explain it to you. They are a great basketball team. Tonight, we’re going to find out: How good are they at track and field? We’re gonna fast break. So, every time you shoot, I want one guard on this side near halfcourt and the other guy on this side. The key is defensive rebounding and the outlet pass. I am the best that ever did that. We’re gonna run them out of the gym.’”

Bill Russell didn't attend either his jersey retirement in Boston or Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Springfield. (AP)

Bill Russell didn’t attend either his jersey retirement in Boston or Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Springfield. (AP)

3a. Bill Russell on retirement: I never had to second guess myself about, “Well, maybe you could’ve played another year or maybe you should’ve retired a year earlier.” I played just enough games. I won too many, and I won too few.

3b. Bill Russell on the Lakers trying to lure him out of retirement: This is absolutely true. They had a ceremony for Jerry West. They had me sitting next to Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the team at the time. About a week later, I get a call saying Jack Kent Cooke wanted to talk to me.

So, he says, “Bill, well, I’ve been thinking about it. What I’m going to do is have you come out of retirement and play for the Lakers.”

So, I says, “Don’t you have a guy named Wilt Chamberlain playing center for you?”

He said, “Yeah.”

I said, “How would he feel about playing backup center?”

I said, “Jack, I ain’t never playing basketball again, but if I were, it would only be for the Celtics.”

3c. Bill Russell on foregoing retirement and Hall of Fame ceremonies: It had nothing to do with anger. I don’t need any validation. I played and I played, and that trip and that experience was enough to last me for a lifetime.

2. Bill Russell on the last game he ever played: I had one game with my oldest son. I took my kids to the 1972 Olympics. He says, “I’m playing basketball every day, and I’ve run out of competition. You want to play me 1-on-1?”

“Son, I don’t play basketball anymore.”

“You scared of being embarrassed?”

“No.”

“Well, I think you’re scared.”

“OK.” So, we go out to this court. I said, “How many baskets?”

He says, “21.”

I says, “OK.” So, I got him 19-0, and then I says, “Now, you can score twice.”

And he says, “Why?”

I says, “Just score twice.”

So, he scores twice, and then I finish him off, so I beat him 21-2. He says, “Oh, why’d you let me score twice?”

I said, “For two reasons: 1) You can’t go away saying I was so mean that I skunked you, and 2) You could also brag that you scored twice on Bill Russell.”

1. Bill Russell on the Celtics: I always said when I left the Celtics, I could not go to heaven, because that would be a step down. I am pure 100 percent Celtic. I think if you slashed my wrists, my blood would’ve been green.

Sound familiar? Another defensive-minded Celtics center who works himself into a rage before every game he plays by the name of Kevin Garnett recently said, “I bleed green, I’ll die green.” The lesson, as always: Cherish Russell, cherish Garnett, cherish your past and your future, because neither will last forever.

Bill Russell, Kevin Garnett

Read More: Bill Russell, Bill Simmons, Boston Celtics, Kevin Garnett
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