Indomitable Russell Values One Accolade Above the Rest
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He has never visited the Basketball Hall of Fame, where he was the first black N.B.A. player enshrined, in 1975. He has his reasons; he always does.
Given his blast-from-the-past ’60s positions on race and just about anything, Russell is often asked about his reaction to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he will receive from President Obama on Tuesday, as will former President George H. W. Bush, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Stan Musial and 11 others.
Is this the greatest personal honor in his life?
“A close second,” Russell replied.
Umm, what’s first? The tentativeness of the question elicited the familiar whooping roar of laughter occasionally emitted by this publicly serious man.
“When he was about 77, my father and I were talking,” Russell answered. “And he said: ‘You know, you’re all grown up now, and I want to tell you something. You know, I am very proud of the way you turned out as my son, and I’m proud of you as a father.’
“My father is my hero, O.K., and I cannot perceive of anything topping that,” Russell continued, his voice becoming husky. This being the mature Bill Russell, born on Lincoln’s birthday in 1934, he saw fit to add, “While I am very, very flattered by this honor.”
Russell will take along much of his family, along with Jim Brown and Joe Morgan, whom he regards as allies, great African-American athletes who spoke their minds.
“I said, ‘You were part of this team, like John Lewis and Maya Angelou, some of the medal winners,’ ” said his daughter, Karen Kenyatta Russell, a lawyer, almost as if she needed to talk her father into accepting the honor.
“Weren’t they the predicate in a way for Obama?” she said. “Before Oprah. He was the first black coach in major sports; people saw someone like him.”
When he was flicking away opponents’ shots, Russell intimidated the world not only with his long arms, but also with his silent stares and strong opinions. For many decades, Russell refused to visit Fenway Park, until new management convinced him it had exorcised vestiges of racism.
He has stayed away from the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., he said, because he represented team play, not individual accomplishment — and besides, he recalled, he was denied an individual honor while in college.
In a telephone conversation recently, Russell just happened to recall the spring of 1966, when he was named the first black coach in a major professional sport in the United States.
“I remember at the press conference,” he said, “probably the second or third question one of the Boston reporters asked me, ‘Can you coach the white guys without being prejudiced?’ Now, I didn’t recall anybody asking a white coach if he could coach the black guys without being prejudiced. All I said was, ‘Yeah.’ ”
New generations have no idea what it was like back then. Russell was born in West Monroe, La.; his parents knew people who had been born slaves. Once his mother made a handsome suit for herself, and police officers told her not to wear “white women’s clothes,” Karen Russell said.
“Black people had to wait in line at a drugstore or gas station, and white people went first,” she continued. “One day, my grandfather tried to pull away from a gas line, and the owner pulled a shotgun and said, ‘Boy, you’re going to buy your gas from me.’ ”
In a telephone interview, she described Russell as the personification of Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about the black journey to northern cities.
“My father says it was not a migration but an immigration,” she said, meaning to another country. Russell told her that if his father had stayed in Louisiana, “He said he either would have killed or been killed.”
Charlie and Katie Russell moved with their two sons to Oakland, Calif., where she died at 32, but not before telling him to make sure the boys got an education. The older son, Charlie L. Russell, became a playwright. A scout spotted the gangly William Russell in a high school game and directed him to Coach Phil Woolpert at the University of San Francisco.
“I was an innovator,” Russell said. “I started blocking shots although I had never seen a shots blocked before that. The first time I did that in a game, my coach called timeout and said, ‘No good defensive player ever leaves his feet.’ ”
Russell did it anyway, and the Dons won 55 straight games and national titles in 1955 and 1956. Then Russell led the United States to a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, and joined the Celtics, who had never won a championship.
He has always given credit to the team’s white owner, Walter Brown, and its white coach, the irascible, pragmatic Red Auerbach. The Celtics began to win, and they kept adding great players, most of them black. When Tom Heinsohn was hurt, Auerbach started Willie Naulls in his place, and days later, Russell said, they were told they were the first N.B.A. team to start five blacks.
Russell dominated everybody — economically blocking shots toward his teammates, changing the flow of his sport. Tom Meschery, an opponent, wrote a poem about him, calling him an “eagle with a beard.”
When Auerbach retired as coach after the 1965-66 title, the team agreed Russell should become the playing coach.
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