Bill Russell. William Felton (Bill) Russell. Could he be the GOAT? The Greatest of All Time? Some put others first. I don’t know. That’s not the purpose of this posting. Yet I posit this. Eleven. He has ten fingers. Yet eleven. Eleven championship rings. More rings than fingers. And I can’t speak for him, but I can say he’d give them all away, trade them, if…..
I have two parents. All of us do. Most of us are lucky enough to know them. Some are lucky that they didn’t. Yet there were, are, always two. And mine, like most, influenced me. Part of that? A big part? Is William Felton Russell. Look at this picture: bottom left. That’s him. Part of a crowd that said what was happening to Muhammad Ali was wrong. Disgustingly wrong. Bill Russell spoke out against racism in Boston and stood up for, stood with others, at a time when most athletes didn’t do this. When you ask why does Lebron James feel safe speaking out? When you say why does the NBA stand apart in having its players, the whole league, feeling safe to be political? (note: when the NBA restarts play in a couple of weeks there will be a Black Lives Matter message on both the basketball courts and on the players’ uniforms). It started with him. Bill Russell. Oh, except there was this white guy. Yeah. Oh, and he was Jewish.
Arnold (Red) Auerbach. He was the coach of the Celtics and drafted Russell. It’s a long story of how, it wasn’t just a straight up draft pick, and of all things, it even involved the Ice Capades. Suffice to say that Red saw greatness, wanted it on his team, and made it happen. And when Bill spoke out? What Red didn’t can’t be called giving “permission”. Red didn’t give permission for Bill to stand up and speak out. Frankly, from what I’ve learned of both men, had it been perceived that way? It wouldn’t have gone well. What happened is that this white guy said OK. He accepted. He didn’t say go do it, I’ll look the other way. He accepted. Some Jewish guy from New York, he had this messed up idea. He said let’s find the best players, the best. Did I leave out that this was happening in the late 1950’s? Red said, let’s believe in them, let them play. Let’s create a new way. And when this Bill guy said accept me? This Red guy said play hard and win and be who and what you are. Acceptance. Oh, and they won. And won. That guy? He played thirteen years. Won eleven championships. And when that Jewish guy said I’m done coaching. The Bill guy said I don’t want to play for anyone else. So? Red said DON’T. Don’t play for anyone else. I won’t ask you to. But I want you to stay, so you be the coach. And then the Black guy who changed basketball did it again when became the first Black head coach of a major sports team. Why? Because that Jewish guy, the one named Red, said talent and winning are what’s important. Oh, and one other thing. That team that Red helped build? It was the first in sports history to put all starters, all five, all African-American, together on the floor at the same time. In Boston. Yeah….
In Boston. The so called “most racist city in America”. So a Jewish guy (oh, am I leaving out that Boston was just about all white and Catholic and that at that time it was taught that it was the Jews who “killed” Christ, that context of what Boston was, and still partly is, matters. It’s why me making clear that Red was Jewish matters) built the winningest team of all time by recognizing talent, embracing ability, and getting beyond hate. So what happened? Almost nobody noticed. Barely any tickets sold. After all, the Boston Red Sox were the last team to add a Black player to their roster. That’s what this city was. So why say this? Why such a long prelude to David’s story?
Near as I can tell, my dad had two heroes in his life. One was Ted Williams. The “Splendid Splinter”. Perhaps the best pure hitter in all of baseball history. The last player to hit over .400 (.406). Might have broken Babe Ruth’s career home run record had Ted not had two center of career breaks to be an aviator in WW2 and then the Korean War. I know why he respected Ted. His other hero? Bill Russell. Frankly, I don’t know why and can’t. My dad died in 2003. Was it the other side of greatness? That Ted was a great hitter and Bill a winner? That they both did what they could to improve our world? I will never know. Or maybe I will. Maybe he told someone who will read this and tell me….
As an important aside: I’ve had a troubled, mostly bad relationship with both my parents. The reasons don’t matter. The disclosure does. Set the negatives aside, if I learned anything important from my parents? It’s these three things: the first is what I’m writing about here. The second is commitment. Dad owned a pharmacy. He went to work every day. Sick, tired, fed up, otherwise. He showed up, because he had made a commitment to help. Someone might need what he did, need their medication to stay alive. And he showed up to make sure they got it. I describe it as a hard French Canadian head (my mom has one too). We commit, follow through, and do what we said we’ll do. Yeah, sometimes we should quit, but frankly? We’re not smart enough for that. The other thing? One day I asked my mom “would you vote for me for President?”. I was probably just shy of eight years old, this likely happened during the 1968 Presidential election. I was expecting a yes. The answer? “I don’t know. It depends on what you stand for”. It hurt a bit as a kid. I get it now that I’m an adult. Which leads me to the other part of the story.
Bill Russell was my dad’s hero. He was my mom’s example. You want what we now call “anti-racism”? He was the lesson that she gave me. Eleven championships in thirteen years. Except he was (is) a Black man. Then polite people called him a “Negro”. We’ll skip what the others said. Yet the others are the story. Here is a man who was the first basketball player, the only player of a team sport, to win like that, the highest paid player in his game at the time (I can’t say the only athlete who was this successful – Edwin Moses dominated the same way in the 400m hurdles in track and field – 9 years, 9 months, 9 days between losses – and I don’t mean winning a meet, I mean winning every qualifying event, every title, everything). And? He couldn’t choose the house he wanted to live in. He could only live on a main, busy street, a highway actually. Is that not enough indignity? When he was away his house was broken into. I think it happened more than once. His trophy case was trashed. And to make sure he got the message? They took a dump, shit on his bed. My mom’s message? No ONE, NO ONE deserves to be treated this way. NO ONE. I don’t recall that race ever came up in the discussions. Yes, it was there, known. But what mattered is the message that there is NO excuse, none, to insult someone’s dignity in this manner. NONE.
And the lesson was bigger than that. We lived in a small city in central Massachusetts. All white. Well mostly anyway. Two Black families. One was poor, lived in a house that would fit in with the image of a southern sharecropper family. Tar paper roof. Literally under a railroad bridge. The story is complex. Alcoholic ex-boxer. The other? They lived on a main road next to a bowling alley. Two highly educated people, one working on an advanced degree, and redlining only offered them one place to live. Main road, lots of traffic, next to a bowling alley. Don’t get me wrong. When I was a friend of their kids, did sleepovers in their home, it was SO COOL that they lived next to the bowling alley. But when you are an adult and learn why that’s where they lived? Not so much anymore.
So why is David an angry old white man? Because I believed the FUCKING DREAM. That if you educate yourself, work hard, be good, you can do well, do great things. I believed that pledge “one nation…. with liberty and justice for all”. Set aside #BLM for a moment. A friend grew up in New Jersey. For his grandfather, there the signs said “No Polish Need Apply”. In Boston? Replace Polish with Irish. And now both groups have integrated, are part of the life that is this country. But neither of the groups were brought here in chains. Not 400 years ago. The Irish and Polish didn’t endure the promises that were broken following slavery. None. That legacy endures. 400 years. This dream I believed in does work for some people who look like me (and yes, even a handful that don’t). It did for me, for my family. But it’s not a dream that is open and available to all.
Oh, and about Mr. Russell? Years ago I asked myself how he could smile, could laugh, could endure after the indignities he’s lived through. So I listened, read a couple of his books. The biggest reason? His dad told him that when you grow to be a man, that your dignity, your self-worth, your self-respect comes from within you and no one can take that away. You will define who and what you are, no one else. The other part? That Jewish guy said hey, win, live up to your commitments, do what this team needs, and I won’t ask you not to be you. Actually? Actually, I’m thinking it was more Red saying win, that is you.
“Do you know the difference between your ego and mine? My ego is not a personal ego. It’s a team ego. My ego demands the success of my team. My personal achievements became my team’s achievements.” – William Felton “Bill” Russell
“I have never worked to be well liked or well loved, but only to be respected. I have fought a problem the only way I know how. Maybe it was right or wrong in the approach, but a man can only ultimately be counted if he thinks he is doing right. Then, at least, he is a man.” – Bill Russell
RIP Red. And keep being strong Bill. May I one day get to stand with you and shake your hand. As to the rest of us? Stand up and say what is wrong is wrong. Commit to change. Maybe even take the 846 Challenge.