Don’t Read This One, Boston Haters: Bill Russell Testifies, Exemplifies.

Bill Russell never flapped his gums idly.  Instead, if you listened to both the words and those moments in which he chose not to speak, you’d learn something.

So we can today.

Russell is often asked about his reaction to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he will receive from President Obama on Tuesday, …

Is this the greatest personal honor in his life?

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“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.”

On the nth day in a row on which stories confirm terrible setbacks for most of us in our long-running class war, let’s remember some heroes for the good guys.  Bill Russell was surely one of them.

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Go read the whole piece (and the SI profile that the NYTimes linked to in the quote above).  It’s worth remembering, as Russel does, both from whence he and we have come:

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,” [Russel’s daughter] Karen Russell said.

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“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.’ ”

And how far we have come, notwithstanding how much, much farther we have to go:

And what does he, the country’s first black professional coach, think about receiving a medal from its first black president? …

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“Well, you know, I know him for a while, long before he was president,” Russell said. “And the last time I talked to him, I said, I am very proud of him, not because he is the first black president, but ‘because you’re an intelligent, competent politician and you arrived at the top of your profession, and so, I’m proud of you for your accomplishments as a man.’ ”

Bill Russell (in what is not intended as an epitaph): Si monumentum requiris, circumspice...which may be translated as “If you seek his monument, look around you.”

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Image:  Francisco de Goya, Retrato del Duque de San Carlos, 1815.






39 replies
  1. 1
    morzer says:

    “Monumentum”… not “monument”.

    “Si monumentum requiris…” etc.

  2. 2
    RosiesDad says:

    Bill Russell, even when he was perceived as some (or many) as being aloof and standoffish, has always been one of the good guys. A tenacious competitor; a sportsman; a gentleman; a thoughtful, humorous, and philosophical man. I’ve enjoyed listening to him open up and share his reflections as he’s gotten older and made himself more available to the public.

    There were and are too few like him.

  3. 3
    J sub D says:

    Nothing really surprising here. Bill Russell has always been a class act. His dad was right to be proud of him, not for his success on the basketball court, but for his success as a man.

  4. 4
    jackmac says:

    Bill Russell is indeed one classy man.

  5. 5
    Tom Levenson says:

    @morzer: Errr. Right you are. Fixed.

    Mrs. Small would be ashamed of her former pupil.

    Ah well, Latiny fades with age, I fear.

  6. 6
    morzer says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    I find that at the age of 41 my Latin is impeccable, sirrah!

    How old are you, venerable sir?

  7. 7
    Tom Levenson says:

    @morzer: Older than you, grasshopper. Further this deponent sayeth not.

  8. 8
    Mark S. says:

    “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.’ ”

    Ha! I also wonder how he and Chamberlain could average 25 rebounds a game. Could anyone shoot back then? Was everyone besides those two 5’11”?

    The Bob Herbert column linked in the post is worth a read as well.

  9. 9
    morzer says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    Well, pops, you just sit yourself down, and take it easy. Wouldn’t want you to get too tired at your age, lifting all those heavy gerunds and gerundives around the place. Let the younger generation take up the burden.

    Seriously, nice post. We really do seem to live in an age when modesty is no longer considered a good part of one’s character, and it’s refreshing to see someone who is modest and has his feet firmly on the ground.

  10. 10
    Gin & Tonic says:

    This lifelong (long) New York Knickerbockers fan ignored your title and read your piece, then the NYT piece, and was moved literally to tears. Thanks.

  11. 11
    JPL says:

    I read the article earlier and already forwarded it to a few friends. The book The Warmth of Other Suns is mentioned and that is what I’m reading now. Although I’m not finished, I highly recommend it.

  12. 12
    hilts says:

    Tom,

    Another great post. This country desperately needs more people like Bill Russell and Bob Herbert.

  13. 13
    Pooh says:

    @Mark S.: Combination of a few things – first, no, no-one could shoot then – even with 3pters, FG% is vastly higher today than it was in Russell’s time. Also the pace of the game was much much much faster. I don’t have the stats in front of me, but I want to say that the NBA as a whole average about 25% more FGA/48minutes in Russell’s day than it does today.

  14. 14

    Great article (NYT) on Russell. What a man.

  15. 15
    Tom Levenson says:

    @morzer:

    Well, pops, you just sit yourself down, and take it easy. Wouldn’t want you to get too tired at your age, lifting all those heavy gerunds and gerundives around the place.

    And may I say, sir, with best regards for you and yours…

    ….”And the horse you rode in on, podner.”

  16. 16
    Bob says:

    As a kid (Lakers fan) I hated Russell. He once refused me an autograph after I waited for almost an hour after a game. Once I got older and saw what a mensch he is, I came to like and admire him. Outspoken without shouting, his dignity in the face of injustice and his unwavering determination to always speak the truth are truly inspiring.

  17. 17
    morzer says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    Senex iratus est. Fugite, pueri!

  18. 18
    JPL says:

    @Mark S.: Thanks for linking to the Herbert article.

  19. 19
    Tom Levenson says:

    @morzer: Festina lente, dude. Or maybe not that lente.

    (and with that, over and out; dinner + family calls.)

  20. 20
    Lysana says:

    Players like Bill Russell are part of why I love the Celtics. The history of the team is like that. And what a man he is.

  21. 21
    Ailuridae says:

    I like Russell a lot off the court and think he has handled himself exceptionally well. It’ll pain Celtics fans to read this but it still needs to be said: on the court he was a hack and a dirty player. The tape doesn’t lie – the Celtics of the 60s were basically as dirty as the Knicks were in the 90s or the Spurs of the aughts. And Bill Russell along with Tommy Heinsohn led the cheating.

    @Pooh:

    That’s about right. The pace of the game was frenetic back then

  22. 22
    Pooh says:

    Just to back up my earlier reply to Mark S.’s comments, in 64-65 the NBA as a whole shot .426 from the floor, last season this number was .461 even with ~23% of the FGA being 3 pointers. I can’t compare pace explicitly because the league didn’t track turnovers back then, but a quick look shows that an NBA team averaged more FGA in 64-65 than they did possessions (which also include free throws and turnovers) last year, so that’s a pretty huge drop in pace.

    /statnerd

  23. 23
    Mark S. says:

    @Pooh:

    Thanks! I find that kind of stuff fascinating.

    /sports history nerd

  24. 24

    I wish I could find a Bob Ryan column in the Boston Globe from the early 1990’s that was a great summation of Bill Russell. One of the things Ryan mentioned was that Russell’s postseason numbers were always better than his regular season numbers. That he won everything there was to win. And that he was a clutch performer, saying that he’d rather have Russell on the free throw line taking the game winning shot even though he was a Shaq/Wilt Chamberlain-esque free throw shooter because he’d find some way to make it.

  25. 25
    Tom Hilton says:

    Okay, that made me tear up.

  26. 26
  27. 27
    Joel says:

    @Mark S.: The pace of the game was much faster and, yes, shooting percentages were much lower. It was still basketball in its infancy.

  28. 28
    Dilbatt says:

    Bill Russell was one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

  29. 29
    MoeLarryAndJesus says:

    @Dilbatt:

    Weak praise. Russell remains the all-time most successful athlete in American team sports. No one else is even close. Two NCAA championships, 11 NBA titles. That’s beyond remarkable.

    Anyone wanting to know more about him should read his autobiography, “Second Wind.”

  30. 30
    And Another Thing... says:

    @Mark S.: I got to see the Celtics play the Pistons when I was in high school. we had great seats and I got to see Bill Russell block this Pistons shot. Russell was in the air, fully stretched, and he slammed the ball back at the shooter. I had NEVER seen anything like it…changed my life. It was otherworldly.

  31. 31
    mclaren says:

    Everything about this appalling post exemplifies what’s wrong with America.

    Once again, we see a worthless sports jerk getting lionized — even as the real American achievers get treated like dirt, ignored, ridiculed, sneered at, marginalized.

    Let’s get real, people: it doesn’t matter a good goddamn whether some clown in America jumps faster or runs better or pushes some ridiculous ball through a hoop better than anyone else. That doesn’t add one iota to America’s wealth. That doesn’t push American society forward by one micrometer.

    The real accomplishments in America aren’t made by these worthless insignigicant athletes — they’re made by people like R. Stanley Williams at HP’s Quantum Structures Lab who just discovered the long-sought fourth basic electrical component, the memristor. These kinds of breakthroughs will revolutionize American society, push technology forward in a quantum leap (all puns intended), and radically change the world.

    Bill Russell’s running and jumping around on some athletic field won’t change a goddamn thing.

    This entire post offers a perfect example of the pathologies and dysfunctions that afflict America. This mindless worship of unimportant sports figures, while the genuinely important people in America who push our civilization forward get utterly ignored, gives us an ideal case of the rabid anti-intellectualism that has turned America into a land of no-neck Tea Partiers screaming “Get the government out of my social security!”

    You want to know where Sarah Palin and her ignorant empty-headed ilk get their support from?

    From attitudes like those that produced this post.

  32. 32
    patrick II says:

    When I was a high school basketball player, our team went to see the Celtics play the Bulls. Jerry Sloan, a 6’5″ guard for the Bulls, took a 20 foot jump shot over a pick. Russell, moving as fast as any man I have ever seen, took a stride and a half from guarding the Bulls center and launched himself into the air. The ball was in the air about two feet from Sloan’s release point when Russell knocked it out of the air into the stands. I have never seen anything like it.

  33. 33
    redoubt says:

    @mclaren: You don’t like sports. That’s OK. But if you are non-white America was a very different and not so pleasant place to be fifty-odd years ago, and Bill Russell is one of the reasons things have gotten better.

  34. 34
    Jose Padilla says:

    @mclaren:

    Your comments could be applied to art, literature, music or any other endeavour not primarly geared toward making money.

  35. 35
    Admiral_Komack says:

    Awww, mclaren has a sad.

    Tell R. Stanley Williams to work on his shot-blocking skills.

  36. 36
    Roy G says:

    While I certainly admire Bill Russell, I think this is really a PR stunt; after all, he is sharing the award with Bush I, and other figureheads. Cynically, it’s an attempt by Obama to gain back some lost cred amongst the African-American community.

    Obama certainly knows something about hollow awards. That Nobel Peace Prize he was gifted doesn’t seem to mean much these days, does it?

  37. 37
    lester freamon says:

    Geez, Tom is such a gift to this blog.

  38. 38

    Charlie Russell had good reason to be proud. He raised a damn fine son.

  39. 39

    I first heard Bill Russell speak in the late 70’s. He came to a local college as part of a lecture series. It was an impressive performance by an impressive man. I was part of a group that gathered around him for a free-form discussion after his lecture. He stayed and talked to us for more than an hour. He was thoughtful, gracious, and patient

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