Q&A with Celtics legend Bill Russell
Bill Russell was Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1968
That year, Russell won an NBA title (one of his 11) as the Celtics' player-coach
Russell's Hall of Fame career is defined by his team-oriented approach
Boston Celtics Hall of Fame center Bill Russell, Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1968, spoke with SI.com's Richard Deitsch about the honor and reflected on his career and legacy.
SI.com: You were the magazine's 15th Sportsman of the Year, and the first pro basketball player to be named Sportsman. You also were honored in a year crammed with excellence, including that of Arthur Ashe, O.J. Simpson, Bob Gibson and Bob Beamon. How meaningful was that year for you?
Russell: Well, first of all, it was my first championship as a coach. The guys that started Sports Illustrated -- guys like Jeremiah Tax and Tex Maule -- they told me that the Sportsman was about more than winning games and trophies. It was about contributions to society through sports. [Writer] George Plimpton was a good guy and we were friends. But you want to hear something weird? I never read the article.
SI.com: No way.
Russell: [Laughs] Oh, yeah. I did see the cover, and when I see that cover, I always laugh because I had a Nehru jacket on. The next day, Nehru jackets went out of style! I kind of halfway read the article, and even today I don't like reading about me.
SI.com: Was it a big honor being Sportsman of the Year at that time?
Russell: Up until that time, I disdained awards. But they said Sportsman wasn't about the best athlete or winning this or winning that. It was about contributions to society of sports.
SI.com: How did you find out about the honor?
Russell: One of the guys I knew at SI called me. They told me they wanted to name me Sportsman of the Year and would I let them. Most publications would not ask for permission. But the award was about: Did you use your platform for role of what a Sportsman should be?
SI.com: What should the role of a Sportsman be today? How do you define Sportsman?
Russell: I don't know. This society is changing very rapidly. There are some things that matter and some things that are taking a different form.
SI.com: Does the Sportsman ideal still exist?
Russell: I don't know. That was my second year as the first black coach in major sports. So my accomplishments were more than winning games.
SI.com: You won the award in 1968, a very transitional time in our country. How has the black man's role in sports changed in the 42 years since you won the award?
Russell: There are a lot more folks in management and decision-making but not as many as there could be. But the media is still mostly all white. The subject of race still dominates a lot and it is still how some people look at each other. If Red [Auerbach] and I had talked about me being a pioneer at that time, I would not have taking the coaching job. He told me it was a Celtics job.
SI.com: What accomplishment inside or outside of sports are you most proud of?
Russell: Well, I was a single parent with an 11-year-old girl. When she was 11 and she said she wanted to stay with me, I said, "Are you sure you want to do that? You are 11 now but when you get to 13 or 14, your whole world is going to change physically and psychologically. Life won't make sense most of the time, and I will not be able to help you because I don't know anything about little girls. But there are two things I will promise you: I will love you until I die and when you leave my home to go into the world, you will be better able to take care of yourself than any man you will ever meet anywhere, anytime and anyplace."
SI.com: Did you hold up your end of the bargain?
Russell: Well, she graduated from Harvard Law School. She practices here in Seattle.
SI.com: So if you need a lawyer, you have a smart one from Harvard then?
Russell: I can't afford her [laughs].
SI.com: Is there anyone in sports today who reminds you of you?
Russell: I don't know because I was kind of maverick, you know [laughs]. I have a great deal of admiration for a lot of these athletes today. I call them industry partners. We work in the same industry. But I always said the only example that I have to set is for my own kids. I tried to conduct my life the way my father did because he was my hero. I make it a point not to make judgments about today's athletes, good or bad.
SI.com: Do you watch a lot of basketball today?
Russell: I watch a lot of basketball. I'm one of those old guys who go to high school basketball games. I try to come in late and sit in the last row. That's what my father did for me.
SI.com: Yeah, but you're Bill Russell. You are a hard guy to miss.
Russell: Well, I'm just some old black guy sitting there [laughs].
SI.com: Could a player-coach work today?
Russell: You see my coach -- and that's what I called Red Auerbach, I called him "my coach" -- he never had an assistant. Never. Not while he was coaching. So the captain was his assistant. He used to get thrown out of games on a regular basis. I think his last year he got thrown out of 22 games.
One of the perks of being the captain was you had a room by yourself -- in those days, you always had roommates. So Red and I on the road would play gin until 3 or 4 in the morning. We talked about all aspects of life and our profession. Mostly, we saw two different games. I saw it from the center position. He saw it from the bench. In my book, I wrote that when I got to Boston as a rookie, Red and I had some confrontation. Not that this has anything to do with Sportsman, but I did not get along with my college coach [Phil Woolper]. He didn't think I was very good even after we won a couple of championships.
SI.com: I'd say he was wrong, no?
Russell: Well, he was wrong but not wrong. When [Phil Woolper] played college ball, he and Pete Newell were roommates. They thought that their college coach was an absolute genius. He showed them what a good player looks like and how he plays and all that so that there was a standard. One of the things they believed was that a good defensive player never leaves his feet. That was the conventional wisdom then.
Well, I was jumping and blocking shots and I was leaving my feet. I blocked some shots my first game and during a timeout he told me: "You can't play defense like that." I said, "But I just blocked five shots in a row. He said, "Well, that's not the way you play defense." He showed me the way he learned to play defense and I vehemently disagreed with that.
What Red said after I got to the Celtics -- and he told me this about a month before the season ended -- was, "You know, you are good. Do you know how good you are? I said, "Yeah, I know." He said, "Well, I know you are a good but I have to confess I do not know what you are doing. But it works and I am not going to mess with it. I am going to watch you and see what you do it and how you do it and make this a part of my system."
SI.com: So Red knew that you had to make the system fit the player?
Russell: Right. For me, I watch games -- football, basketball, baseball -- and all these coaches have systems. They are good with X's and O's but that's just like playing video games. There is no concession if a guy is supposed to be at a spot at this time. Well, what if he is too fast or too slow? Not all players are the same. So Red developed a system but there was a place in that system for any kind of player you could think of. When I was playing and I came out of the game and the other center went in, we used different set of plays.
I was talking to Kobe Bryant during the basketball game at the White House recently. Now, I find Kobe a very interesting guy. When I talked to him, I talk to him like he is an Italian. He grew up in Rome so all the cultural things that he grew up with, most people here do not acknowledge. I always say, "How is my little Italian friend?" But what we talked about was something I wrote in my book a couple of years ago. When I arrived in Boston, the first thing I did was to scout my teammates. It was irrelevant how good or bad they were. It was what did they do, and how did they do it and how do you put them in the best situations? A lot of my contribution to the team was learning how to be invisible.
SI.com: You knew what your teammates did best?
Russell: Right. For example, one of the first things I learned was how to run all the plays from all the positions on the floor. Nowadays, they number the players 1 through 5. I could run the plays with the timing and everything from all five spots. I wanted to do that so I could understand what my teammates were going through. If they had any difficulty, I would know how to help.
SI.com: You and Red always seemed to have absolute fidelity to the Celtics.
Russell: I never heard my coach say he wished that he had a player from another team. He never once said that. Red used to say after the final cuts, "This is the team I want and this is the team I am going to war with. I don't want anybody else. This is us." One thing I learned from Red was it was never Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics. It was always the Boston Celtics. We never would say "Cousy and the Boston Celtics." We would say "the Celtics." We would never say "Bill Russell and the Celtics." We would say "the Celtics." My pride is in being part of a team.
They named the MVP playoff trophy the Bill Russell Trophy, which I agreed to. Most of the time, I don't have any time for those individual honors. What I'd always say was, "I want to thank my teammates for letting me help them do their best."
SI.com: Many people have an idea of what your legacy is, whether they think it's championships or something else. What do you hope people take from your athletic days?
Russell: I don't know. You know, I am one of those guys who rejected going to the Hall of Fame because I took an attitude about my profession. I wanted to find out what was important and my conclusion was that the only important statistic in the game is the final score. What could I do with my skills to determine who won the games, and to make sure my team won most of the games? That was the only important thing.
I'll give you an example: In my second year, the players voted for the MVP and the players voted me the MVP by a wide margin. But at the same time, the writers picked the all-league team. So I have the honorable distinction of being the MVP of the league and a second-team all-league pick [laughs].
To show you it was deliberate, a couple of years later, Wilt Chamberlain came into the league, and they changed the voting his rookie year. Before they used to take the five best players, but when Wilt came in, they changed the rules to pick by position. There never could be a time when Wilt and I were first-team all-league. I don't think they considered whether Wilt or I noticed that, or if we did notice it, well, f--- us. I came to the conclusion that there are very few people who can insult me no matter what they say. But also there are very few people who can honor me. There were a couple of guys who even said I was not the best player on the Celtics, then they put me into the Hall of Fame. Well, I didn't accept your opinion before and I am not going to accept it now.
SI.com: So is winning on the court the legacy?
Russell: When folks ask who the best player is, I have never, ever put myself in that category. All I said was that I made up my mind in college that I would try to win all the games. I didn't pull it off, but I tried.