Maclean's Interview: Bill Russell

Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell on his big ring, his favourite coach—and why he won’t visit the Basketball Hall of Fame

Maclean's Interview: Bill RussellQ: I read that your grandchild once asked you if you were as good a basketball player as Michael Jordan, but I never read your answer.

A: I told him, that’s the wrong question. The question is, was Michael Jordan as good as me.

Q: Wayne Embry, who’s been in Canada with the Toronto Raptors, said that you were not the greatest player to play basketball but you would be the first player that he would want if he was going to start a team. That makes no sense to me.

A: Aha! Well, there’s my whole history, okay? The reason is that when people talk about great players they’re always talking about the offence, there are no real adequate stats for defence. When I was in college, my junior year in college we were 28-and-1. I was MVP at the Final Four. We won it, okay? I was first team all-American, my team was the number one defensive team in the nation. At the end of the season they picked another centre as player of the year. And my second year in the NBA the players voted me MVP, and the writers voted me second team all-league. So I’m used to that. But by my way of thinking, individual stats are great for golf, tennis, and most track and field [events].

Q: Individual sports.

A: Yes. But I played a team sport. So to my way of thinking, the only important thing is how does my play impact my team’s winning or losing. I won MVP five times, I never once led my team in scoring. I led in rebounding, and I was always second in assists. So, my impact on my team was offence and defence. But a long time ago, I dismissed individual honours.

Q: I notice you’re wearing a big ring.

A: Well, this ring is from NBA commissioner David Stern, who’s a friend of mine. Years ago, everybody used to ask me, “Which rings do you wear?” because we won 11 championships with the Boston Celtics. So David had this ring designed for me. It’s one of a kind. It has a cloverleaf, for the Celtics, with a six—my number—and on the side it has all 11 NBA championships. So I don’t have to make that decision anymore about which ring I’m going to wear.

Q: David Stern did that?

A: Yeah. For my birthday.

Q: I’m really interested in the notion of a team player versus a great player, because you’re often referred to as the greatest team player and it seems . . .

A: Inconsistent.

Q: . . . that even people in basketball are missing the point.

A: Right, that’s why we won so many championships!

Q: I know, you’ve won a lot of championships, and one would think that players are in it to win championships, so why not look at the example of people who won championships, and how they did it?

A: I played organized basketball for 21 years, and I was on 18 championship teams. Now, you could call it luck.

Q: You could.

A: But I’m perfectly satisfied with it. In fact, I personally reject those individual things. I don’t know if you know that I have never been to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Q: I’m surprised at that.

A: Well, because if I say that I reject that because of negatives I can’t turn around and say the positives I’ll accept.

Q: But I would have thought of the Hall of Fame as a shrine to the game.

A: I don’t think so.

Q: Your new book is called Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend. Why did you write it?

A: To celebrate a friendship. Red Auerbach was my coach [in Boston], but he never told me how to play. And, conversely, I never told him how to coach, you know? This friendship developed over years, because when I got to Boston my relationship with my coaches after high school was not all that positive, and so I expected an adversarial relationship. But fortunately for me the coach I encountered in Boston was results-oriented. All he cared about was results, and not how it looked, as contrast to my college coach. My very first college game was against Cal-Berkeley, and the centre was pre-season all-American. I blocked the first five shots he took. So they called time out because they had never seen anything like that. This was something new to the game. We go in a huddle, and my coach says to me, “You can’t play defence like that. That’s not the way to play defence,” and he showed me how he thought I should play. So I go out and I try it, and the guy shoots three layups in a row. And he says that’s the way you play defence. We argued for three years, and he never accepted that I was a good player.

Q: Even when you won 55 games in a row?

A: Right. I get to Boston and Red is totally results-oriented, so at the end of my rookie year he says to me, “You’re the best player, and I want you to know it. But, I must confess, I don’t know what you’re doing, and I can’t help you. What I will do is I’ll watch you play and see what you’re doing, and as soon as I’ve figured it out I’ll put that in as part of the system.” As a consequence I was second on the team in assists for 12 straight years.

Q: Results-oriented.

A: Yeah. He coached in the NBA for 20 years. At the end of 19 years he had never been coach of the year.

Q: You’re kidding.

A: The only time he was coach of the year was in his last year. It was almost like a life-time achievement award. And so we both knew, early, that neither of us would really get current acclaim. Both of us had concluded the only important thing for our self-satisfaction was to win as many games as possible and let results be results and not care about what other people thought.

Q: I’m curious about the two seasons when you didn’t win a championship. What went wrong?

A: The first time I got hurt in the championship series, but I never used that as an excuse. Injuries are as much a part of play-offs as free throws. You start saying “woulda coulda,” and to me the only thing that matters is what happened.

Q: Tell me about the second season you didn’t win a championship. It was your first as a player-coach.

A: Yeah, and we got our butts kicked. A better team beat us that year.

Q: Your book talks a lot about male friendship. You thought your intense competitiveness made it difficult for you to have friendships. Are you competitive about everything?

A: No. When I was playing I was, extraordinarily so. But after I retired I was a vegetarian for a couple years, and it’s probably silly but I thought carnivores were very competitive. I thought if I was vegetarian, I would be more co-operative than competitive.

Q: Did it work?

A: Yes, and I was better able to exercise friendship.

Q: Do you regret not starting sooner?

A: No. I don’t have very many regrets, not because I lived a perfect life but because life is a bunch of rolling hills, not mountains, or speed bumps instead of stop signs, and so you come to a situation and it’s neither good or bad, it just is, and what it means to you is what’s your take on it. But the second part of the equation is what are you going to do about it. A lot of times I’m completely wrong, but all you do is back up and start over.

Q: That’s a healthy attitude.

A: I was telling someone this and they said, “You got cut from junior varsity in the 11th grade. How do you feel?” I wasn’t good enough to make the team. I went out that night and played basketball for five straight hours. The fact that I didn’t make that team did not make me enjoy basketball less.

Q: I was shocked reading the book at the levels of racism you encountered in Boston.

A: It wasn’t that much different than any other city in the country, you know? And coming from the projects of West Oakville I had pretty much developed a code of conduct so I knew how to deal with it, keeping in mind I would not let it destroy me, or even injure me, because if I let it injure me then I’ve lost more.

Q: It got in the way of your relationship with the people in Boston. Has there been a reconciliation between you and Boston since then?

A: Not really. The only thing that’s changed is the way people approach me now as opposed to the way they approached me then. I don’t know if you’ve heard it, I’m supposed to be “a private person.”

Q: That was one of the first things I heard.

A: I think that that’s another one of the things I got from my father. He had a few friends, not a lot, because friendship is a full-time job.

Q: You do have this reputation as a private person, but I want to challenge it a little bit. You’ve lived a big part of your life in public—you can’t help it being a successful pro athlete—and you’ve written, now, is it four books?

A: Yeah.

Q: Which is communicating with the public, and often being very frank with your opinions on life and revelations about yourself.

A: Well, I don’t know. First of all, the things that I revealed in the books are probably about five per cent of me. The other 95 per cent is, you know, in the book I talk about there’s a place inside that you’d never allow anybody to go? Well, I maintain that.

Q: I’m interested in how somebody who is so driven to win deals with losing. You didn’t lose very much but you had some, as a coach—was it in Sacramento?

A: Yeah. Well, two stories. One, when Philadelphia beat us in ’67, we get in the locker room and I say, “Okay, guys, let’s go.” “Where are we going? It’s over.” “We’re going over to the other locker room and congratulate those guys.” That’s how I handled that loser.

Q: That’s a great story.

A: In Sacramento I was going to try to rescue that franchise. When I got there I found out why the franchise was so dysfunctional.

Q: Was it at the ownership level?

A: Yes. The very first exhibition game, after the game, this guy brings me a note saying, “The owner doesn’t like the way you use time outs.” This guy had never seen a pro game until he bought the team. That kind of stuff went on, so I just said, “Okay, I’ll just leave.”

Q: With the election of President Obama we’re hearing a lot about this being a post-racial America now. Do you feel that?

A: No.

Q: Not at all?

A: No, this is the beginning of maybe trying to approach that, but just a beginning, it’s not the end of anything.

Q: Do young players today have any conception of what you went through in the early years in the league?

A: Much more than people would expect.

Q: How do they express it?

A: The NBA has a week of orientation, and the conversations I have with the kids are enlightening, and I enjoy it. The athletes, they’re pretty much the same, you know? A lot of outsiders dwell with the money and all that kind of stuff. I don’t. I dwell with young kids whose profession is basketball, and I find them delightful.

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