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If you like Bill Russell's story, you might also like:
Hank Aaron,
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,
Yogi Berra,
Julius Erving,
Coretta Scott King,
Mike Krzyzewski,
John Lewis,
Peyton Manning,
Willie Mays,
Rosa Parks,
Sidney Poitier,
Colin Powell,
Herschel Walker,
Lenny Wilkens,
John Wooden
and Andrew Young

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Bill Russell
 
Bill Russell
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Bill Russell Interview (page: 5 / 8)

Cornerstone of the Boston Celtics' Dynasty

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  Bill Russell

Could you tell us about growing up in Monroe, Louisiana and some of what your family was up against there?

Bill Russell: Well in 1934 -- pre-World War II -- Louisiana was an absolutely hideous place for a black man, completely and totally hideous. One of the things about most civilized societies in the past has been for the man to be able to take care of their families, and that included their wives and their children. Well, in pre-World War II Louisiana, that was almost outlawed. They figured a way to keep black men from being able to take care of their families, protect their families. There was no hesitation for a white man humiliating a black man in front of his wife and kids.


Here's one of the things my father taught me that I'll never forget. He had a job, and his boss went on vacation. I'm thinking that in his own way he liked my father. So he says, "Here's what I want you to do, I want you to come and take me and my wife to the train station, and we're going to be gone two or three weeks, and when we come back I want you to meet the train and pick us up, but you keep the car while I'm gone." So there we were with a car. This is something that never happened. A nice car too! So what do we do on Sunday? You go for a ride in the country. So we go for a ride in the country and we come home and we stop by the ice house. We didn't have a refrigerator, we had an ice box and you buy a five, ten or 25-pound block of ice, and you put it in this area in this thing and it kept everything cool. And it might last up to -- a 25-pound block of ice would last a week. So we stopped by the ice house, and we're sitting there and look in to one of the guys in there, and he's got his foot on the desk talking to a friend. He looks out and sees us and he keeps talking. So we sit there -- it seemed like five, ten minutes -- no ice. And then a car pulls up with white people in it. He looks, he stops talking to his friend, goes out and sells them ice. So my father gets ready to start the car, this guy walks up to the car and says, "Boy, don't you ever do what you started to do." So my father, being the polite gentleman that he is got out of the car, picked up the crank and went after the guy. And the last time I saw the guy he was at least three or four blocks away from his ice house on the run!


This guy was running, and he went and left his ice house. So after my father chased him a block, he came back, got in the car and we left. So he says, "I'm not going to let this guy humiliate me in front of my kids." Now why was that important? I saw that, and I was so proud of my father. He was showing me how to be a father, how to be a man. He never would bother anybody, but he would not let anybody mess over him.

Your mom was once accosted by a sheriff?

Bill Russell: Yes, an under-sheriff.


They used to have outfits, they were boots, riding pants with this flare, and a little jacket and the cap. Well she got herself one of those outfits, and she's walking downtown in Monroe -- West Monroe, probably -- and this under-sheriff stopped and said, "You can't dress like that. You think you can dress as good as white women. We're not going to put up with that. I want you out of town by midnight, by dark." Now you see, he was operating on the notion that there's nobody could do a damned thing about that. That not any of the black men were able to say, "Don't talk to my wife like that." My grandfather wanted to kill him and we had to talk him out of it. But the fact is that that kind of thing happened and this was not an isolated incident.


Your father ended up moving the family. What were the circumstances of your living in Oakland?


Bill Russell: We first went to Detroit, but it was too cold. Anybody from Detroit can tell you! So he called some friends in Oakland that were working in shipyards. He said, "What's the job situation?" They said they were begging for people to work. So he moved to Oakland and worked in the shipyard. And that started my first great adventure. My mother and my brother and I got on a train and went to California. If you're nine years old, the world is a marvelous place. If people are not attacking you or anything, it's a marvelous place. So we get on this locomotive and the first stop is Little Rock -- I had heard the word once, I think -- then to St. Louis. Then we took a streamliner from St. Louis to Denver, just fantastic. And then we took another locomotive over the High Sierras into Oakland. And that was one of the great adventures of my life, as a nine-year-old taking a train, it took a week. I just loved that.


In college you were so successful that they actually changed the rules of the game to adapt to your playing. The so-called "Russell Rules." Can you tell us about that?

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell: The lane was shaped like a keyhole, and it was six feet across, and they changed it to ten feet across. I looked at that and I thought about it and I said, "Thank you!" Because I looked at my physical capabilities and the guys I'm playing against, and that was a huge advantage on my part. I couldn't have asked them to do anything to help me any more than that.

Because it gave you more room to move?

Bill Russell: Outside the lane, going across the lane, I could probably even today get across the lane faster than anybody around, and I knew that. So in the lane, it's three seconds. I could go in the lane, have lunch and get out to the other side in three seconds!

You were also into track and field, weren't you? Running and jumping?

Bill Russell: Yes. I just loved that. But you asked about rule changes. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in college they outlawed dunking. Now what is that? Because except for who came later -- Bill Walton -- there weren't any white kids jumping. All the dunking was done by black guys, so they outlawed it. The excuse they used was the guys dunking were hurting the rims!

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This page last revised on Sep 02, 2008 12:55 EDT