BILL Russell couldn’t find a university basketball scholarship. He was so uncoordinated in High School and had such atrocious basic skills that none of the good basketball schools wanted him. Eventually, he went to the San Francisco University and joined the unknown San Francisco Dons, who didn’t even have their own gym. He arrived there from the merciless streets of Oakland and later said, “I never knew until that moment the word ‘mother’ could be used on its own”. There were five black students in the entire university. He was called a coon and a baboon. Often, when the team travelled, he was not allowed to check into the same hotel or eat in the same restaurant. Once, he was told by a sympathetic restaurant owner that he could eat there, but only in the kitchen, out of sight of the other patrons.
The team was anonymous. Russell couldn’t shoot. But there was something inside him. Something not quite human. He fought like a dog for his team. He always marked the best player on the opposing team, even as a freshman. He dived and blocked and hurled himself on loose balls and made his teammates look better than they were. They had no stars, but with Russell, they were unbeatable. They won 55 straight games. They won two NCAA college championships in a row.
Then, the Celtics, the whitest team in a very white league, signed him. He arrived at Boston, a black dot on a white canvas. His shooting was awful, he missed open lay-ups, he was a poor dribbler, he was awkward and unglamorous, and after five games, by which time the Boston crowd were booing him, he told his wife, “Pack our bags, we will not be here long.” The franchise had never won a championship. Russell had joined a losing team and expectations were low to very low. But something was happening. They were winning. They did not have a single superstar. Russell was managing a paltry 10 points per game. But they were winning.
A month into the season, a reporter asked him if he was going to shave his goatee. Russell, who did not like reporters, said “I will when we win the championship.” When. Not if. To the astonishment of the basketball world, they did just that. He captained the team from his arrival in 1956 to 1969, during which time they went on to win 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons, including 8 in a row. As Magic Johnson later said, “That cat has more rings than fingers.”
None of their players during that epic 13 year run even finished in the NBA’s top ten scorers. During “the streak”, they played in ten deciding Game 7s and won all ten of them. For 13 years, they dominated the game like never before or since. Russell – who wasn’t a scorer (averaging 15 points per game), despised the media, intensely disliked the Boston fans (who had a well-deserved reputation for racism), wasn’t eloquent, never gave team talks and concentrated on defending and rebounding – retired in 1969. The following season, the Celtics promptly collapsed.
The Wall Street Journal’s enterprise editor Sam Walker is a sports nut. A geek, he is a two time winner of the US Fantasy Baseball Expert competition (In America, they have a competition for everything). He was so fascinated by Russell’s extraordinary, unorthodox success, it inspired him to write a book called The Captain Class. Using a mathematical formula and a whole series of requirements, he eventually concluded that the reason every team he played for won was because Russell was the greatest team captain in sports history.
When Russell said, “My ego demands, for myself, the success of my team” he meant it. He disliked and distrusted the media and had no interest in fame. When the Celtics planned a public ceremony to retire his number 6 jersey, he refused to attend. “I never played for the fans,” he said. “I played for myself and for my team.” “I owe the fans nothing,” he said on another occasion.
In 1975, when he was told he was going to be admitted to the NBA Hall of Fame, he said “I will not attend the ceremony and will not consider myself a member. For my own personal reasons, which I do not want to discuss, I do not want to be apart of it.” The media tore into him, but he did not care.
What marked him out on the court was his ferocity to win. His superhuman defensive work. His ability to keep driving on when everyone else had quit. His dedication to playing without the ball. He didn’t score, but he handed that job to his teammates, selflessly giving them the easy baskets earned by his punishing labours.
He lacked superstar talent. He hated the spotlight. He refused personal awards. He was fearlessly independent. If Mayo had had him, no one would be talking about the curse.
Watch ‘Bill Russell: Legend’ on Netflix. 2023. 1 season.