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Bill Russell

Interview: Bill Russell
Cornerstone of the Boston Celtics' Dynasty

July 4, 2008
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

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In your first year in the NBA, you made perhaps the most celebrated play in professional basketball history. Can you tell us about the Coleman play?

Bill Russell: That was my rookie year. You see, up until that time, in general, rookies were not people yet. "All they do is cost you ball games, making rookie mistakes." Well, Tom Heinsohn had one of the greatest games I've ever seen. He had 38 points and 23 rebounds, which was not a bad afternoon, and fouled out in the first overtime playing defense. Okay? And Frank Ramsey, who originated the six-man position, we had the last two points in the game, and we won by two in double overtime.

Getting into double overtime, I went, I made a "back-door" and I got the pass too late to make the basket, so I went, I missed the shot and I went out. Well, they got the rebound uncontested and outlet it to a guy at half court, Coleman. And we didn't have anybody past the top of the foul circle. So all he had to do was dribble down and lay it up. Well, I come back on the court and I see what's happening and I take off. And I ran by everybody and I caught him. And when he got the ball at half court I was still out of bounds on the baseline. And I saw nobody was going after him, so I went after him. And not being too modest, I was probably if not the -- closest to the fastest man in the league. Nobody knew that though. So I caught him and I blocked his shot and I didn't knock it in the stands. I blocked the shot and kept it in play. I almost forgot about the play until Heinsohn and Cousy and those guys were talking about it that that was the greatest play they'd ever seen. I wasn't going to let us lose, not standing around anyway. If we were going to lose, we were going to lose fighting.

You and Wilt Chamberlain had the most famous rivalry in basketball, but we understand you were actually friends off the court. What was that like?

Bill Russell: Wilt and I were -- when he was playing in Philadelphia, we used to have a Thanksgiving night game in Philadelphia every year. It was like every year this... at noon he would come to the hotel and pick me up and I would have Thanksgiving dinner with his family -- you know he had a lot of brothers and sisters -- and his mother would let me take a nap in his bed after we had Thanksgiving dinner. And then we'd go to the game together. And as we left the home, she'd say, "You be nice to my boy!" And everybody thought for years and years that we were (rivals) because they projected. They didn't know either one of use. We were not rivals. That's what most people did not understand. That's somebody that didn't know either one of us. We were not rivals. We were competitors, which is a totally different thing, because in a rivalry there's a victor and a vanquished. Neither one of us fit either side of that. We were competitors that played the same position in completely different ways. Both of us had our agendas, and our agendas were to win. Now he thought -- and rightfully so -- that he was the greatest basketball player that ever lived. And if he went out every night and performed as the greatest basketball player that ever lived, they should win a lot of games. So they won a lot of games.

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell Interview Photo

My approach was it's a team game. And the only important stat, if you want to call it that, is the final score. And so I was only interested in winning. But that goes back to my high school and college days. At that time it was never acceptable that a black player was the best. That did not happen. That's like all the baseball players in the Negro leagues. They were never considered Hall of Famers or anything like that, although we found out later that they were just as good, if not better, than the so-called famous. So I'll digress for just a minute. My junior year in college, I had what I thought was the one of the best college seasons ever. We won 28 out of 29 games. We won the National Championship. I was the MVP at the Final Four. I was first team All American. I averaged over 20 points and over 20 rebounds, and I was the only guy in college blocking shots. So after the season was over, they had a Northern California banquet, and they picked another center as Player of the Year in Northern California. Well, that let me know that if I were to accept these as the final judges of my career I would die a bitter old man. So I made a conscious decision: "What I'll do is I will try my very best to win every game. So when my career is finished it will be a historical fact I won these games, these championships, and there's no one's opinion how good I am or how good other guys are or comparing things." And so as I chronicle my career playing basketball, I played organized basketball for 21 years and I was on 18 championship teams. So that's what my standard is: playing a team game and my team winning. I really applaud -- and adore really -- these great athletes, that play my game especially. So I feel humbled if someone wants to go past that and include me in that group, 'cause I never include myself in that group.

Everyone includes you in that group now. You played in so many championship games against the L.A. Lakers, but you've mentioned that you have enduring friendships with several of them, contrary to what the public might have thought about the rivalry. You got a letter from Jerry West just recently. What did he say?

Bill Russell: He just said he honored and appreciated our friendship and how kind and considerate I've been of him throughout his whole career. And he wanted to thank me.

You see, when Jerry was a rookie with the (Lakers), that was the year that the Lakers moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. That's where the name Lakers comes from, the Minnesota Lakers, because of all the lakes in Minnesota. When Jerry was a rookie, and we -- the Celtics -- came out to the West Coast to California and welcomed and introduced the Lakers to the West Coast. So we played I think 16 or 17 exhibition games, starting in San Diego all the way up to San Luis Obispo. And so we were just living together for a month. And Elgin Baylor -- we had been friends since I was in college -- and Jerry was a rookie and Elgin was a star, and Elgin sort of mentored Jerry. So everywhere Elgin went, Jerry went. And so we, all of us were, no matter who they were, rookies in the league. I know that all the people I know welcomed the rookies, because they could make our game better. And that's what most of us were interested in, was making our game the best that we could make it.

Did Jerry West as a rookie show the promise of the player he would eventually become?

Bill Russell: Yes. He was very, very good. I think the only reason he wasn't Rookie of the Year was because of Oscar Robertson. That does create a problem!

Jerry was a very, very competitive, very intelligent ballplayer. That's one of the things that I like to tell folks about these great basketball players is that the greater they are the smarter they are. And that no guy can reach the top of his field without knowing what he's doing. The Lakers like West and Chamberlain and Baylor, and a host of other guys who I knew quite well, they were at the wrong place at the right time, because you know everybody says we beat the Lakers all the time. While that is true, the other thing you have to consider is we beat everybody! It wasn't just the Lakers. A guy was telling me something about we lost one year and how I had had remarkable success against Wilt. I said, "If you can win eight straight championships you've beaten everybody." There's not one person that you said "Well, I beat him." You beat everybody! And that's the way we felt about it. And as far as I can figure for myself, there was never any animosity towards other players.

It's so revealing to read some of the material that you yourself have written about the game of basketball. From the outside it looks like just sheer talent and athleticism, but in your book, Russell Rules, you talk about it very analytically, studying other player's moves. You almost looked at it as a science.

Bill Russell: My coach and I -- I call Red Auerbach "my coach" -- his background was math. We used to talk all the time about the game and life and things, but mostly equations. When you think about the game of basketball, it's played in a cube. There are boundaries: floor and ceiling, left, right, back and forth. And the other confinement is time. So what you do within those boundaries with the allotted amount of time is where the game is. And first of all, I never approached the game with a preconceived notion. Now there may be some things I learned, but I wouldn't take anybody's word for it. They'd say, "He's gonna do this." I could not take anybody's word for that, because first of all in that level there are no "one size fits all" and there's no silver bullet. And so in college I was -- mostly I was self taught, basically. One time I was playing a game against Stanford and one of their guards stole the ball and started down to shoot a lay-up. And I was the only one who could catch him. I was the only one in the building that knew that! So I was behind him, and after I was sure that I could catch him -- he's going down the right side -- I took a giant step to the left, and then continued. And the reason I took it to the left, if I went right behind him and blocked the shot I'd probably hit him and that's a foul and there's no accomplishment. But if I took a step to the left when I got to him, there was an angle, so I had a choice to either go in front or behind. And I got there, I knocked the ball into the backboard and then he got the rebound and went back the other way. And I got to know him after we got to playing, and he said he never figured out where I came from, but it was actually quite routine.

That's geometry, isn't it?

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell: Yes, yes. But you see the thing is, is that in approaching athletes especially, that's something I know about. You could never dissect a player into parts. Each player is a package. You can't say, "If he did this..." or "If he thought..." or "If he didn't think..." or "If he tried this..." Invalid and irrelevant! What you got is what you got. There are certain things that you have to know to be an outstanding athlete in any sport. There's offense and defense and there are things that you can do as an individual to impact the game without having your hand or your foot on the ball.

I used to break it down. There are 48 minutes in a game. It takes a second -- a second-and-a-half, maybe two seconds -- for a three point shot. And if you add up all the shots taken in a game -- free throws don't count because the clock stops -- but if you take all the seconds added up shooting and rebounding it comes to about three minutes. Now out of a 48-minute game three minutes are concerned with shooting and rebounding. What is going on the other 45 minutes?

Events?

Bill Russell: A whole bunch of things! Some of the time you're working your offense. Every play, there is an assignment for every player on the floor. So there are five parts. How well you do your place -- where you're nowhere close to the ball or a shot -- and if you do your job correctly, that makes it an easy shot.When you're freelancing, how well do you set picks? How well do you pass the ball so that the receiver cannot only catch it but can do something with it?

You throw it in a particular way so they can throw it right up.

Bill Russell: I played with a guy (Tom Sanders) that wore contact lenses. Okay? His field of vision was like this. Anything outside of that circle he could not see. He just could not see it. If you passed the ball right here he could not see it. Well, I would consider it a bad pass if I threw a pass around his knees. I would not grumble and say, "He should have caught that." That's not true. So when I passed to him I tried to make sure that the pass arrived up here where he could catch it, and with the velocity. If the ball is going to come out of nowhere right to here, well, if it's too hard he can't catch it. It's not saying he has bad hands. That's a bad pass. Well, to be able to acknowledge that you are the one that made the mistake... and you might want to talk to him about passes, so that he can first of all give you a good target and be ready to catch it and ready to do something with it after he caught it. These are little things that not a lot of attention is paid to. One thing that my coach did was he did a remarkable job of contingencies, so that whatever comes up, his goal was no surprises. Especially when the game comes down to the last minute -- although sometimes that's not the key part of the game, a lot of people think that (it's) the last three minutes. The game may be won in the first quarter, because I know we used to talk sometimes, and he'd say, "Basically, you only have to outplay the other team three minutes out of 48. If you outplay them those three minutes and play even the rest of the time, you win the game."

Do you mean get ahead at the beginning?

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell: Not necessarily. You might be behind, and in these three minutes you might catch up. But these are the three that determine basically the whole outcome. So he said to me sometimes, "This is the time we need to do it, when you lock them down for three minutes and execute our offense. And if that's not working, then we should go to the basket to get pretty close on lay-ups." Fortunately we had players that could do that. So all we had to do was set the stage for them, put them in a place where they could do their best. But make sure that they only did one shot, and hopefully that's not a good shot, and if they miss: no offensive rebounds. That's a no-no! Now if you're there for three minutes, if we do it correctly, we will take the heart out of them. It may not manifest itself right then, but after we've taken their heart, it may take in the last quarter if they are afraid.

Didn't Red Auerbach say something about getting five baskets down, or three baskets?

Bill Russell: Sometimes he worked psychologically. That's the other thing. He was very, very good psychologically. Sometimes it would be better to get behind. The reason for that is when you get behind, you can get your players to listen to you and the adjustments that you have to make. If you're ahead it's hard to get them to listen. We like to call it "human nature," but we just call it "Not all that bright!"

There are times when the coach has to get the players to listen. That is the hardest thing, because every player comes there, first of all has a massive ego by the time he gets to that level, because he's been good enough to get there and he's comfortable with what it took to get there. Now what you have to do is -- after you get him there with all that talent -- is to get him to try to improve. Never try to take anything away from his game, but add to his game. But you got to have -- our coach used to get us invested in what he was trying to do. So he'd always be asking us something. You know, before the game he'd say, "What do you think?" He'd ask three or four of us, "What do you think?" And then he would go through the process of pretending he was thinking about what we said! And he'd say, "Well okay, if you think that way, this is what we're going to do." Most of the time he already knew what he needed to do, but he had to get us invested in it, because once we were invested in it we'd do it much better.

And at the time you definitely believed he was listening to you and what you said?

Bill Russell: Oh yeah, he was listening. Of course sometimes he acted on that. You could see him acting on what you told him. A lot of times one of those guys would say, "The guy that's guarding me cannot guard me, because he can't do it. I can take him any time I want." Well, our reputation was that if we ran a play and it worked, we might run it ten straight times. His theory on that is, "If I run a play that works, and I run it again and it works, and I run it again and it works, if that coach doesn't make any adjustments, okay. As long as it works I'll keep doing it. I'm not going to do his job by stopping doing that play. His job is to counter. If he doesn't know how or has not enough head to counter it, then that's his problem."

Bill Russell Interview Photo
The Lakers and Celtics met again this year, but the Lakers didn't adjust.

Bill Russell: Well, you see now that's the other thing. Sometimes coaches listened to me. I had one coach, he lost a bunch of playoff games and he said, "I can't stand it. We can't beat anybody in the playoffs, but I always hear you've got to make adjustments." I said, "You have to make adjustments, but you can only make adjustments that your particular team can make." You can't say, "We've got to do a great job defensively," if you don't have anybody that can play defense. You can't say, "We have to do a better job rebounding," if you don't have any good rebounders. So what you may have to adjust is tempo -- up tempo or maybe slow down, so that you can make a better rebound team. You can play the game so the rebounds become less important to the outcome. Those are the kind of adjustments that your team can make. But you have to know your team.

A lot of times you hear fans talk about, "The coach does this, and the coach is gonna do that." Unless they're privy to practice and conversations that go on within that team, they have not the slightest idea what they're talking about. Because I remember once Shaquille O'Neal, who's a dear friend of mine, and a guy was telling me about he was watching Shaquille play, and he said he saw when Shaquille O'Neal went to the free throw line, he knew exactly what he was thinking. And I said, "That's a crock. You cannot possibly know what he's thinking." I remember myself, I went to the free throw line and I wondered -- I'm getting the basketball and I'm wondering -- "Is the babysitter feeding the kids?" Because sometimes you do not want to think about the task at hand. What I mean by that is this: We had this game, seventh game, and it was a series against Philadelphia. They had gotten up three to one.

Was this the 1968 series?

Bill Russell: 1968.

They had gotten up three to one. And the next three games, two of them would be in Philadelphia. So everybody says, "They can't win three games in a row," and I told my team, I says, "We don't have to win three games in a row. We just got to win the next one, then we worry about the next one. If we talk about winning three games, well, that's got nothing to do with anything. All we got to do is win the next one." So we get down to the last game, and we've gotten a two point lead and this is no three point shots, okay? So they fouled me deliberately because I'm the worst free throw shooter on the floor. And I just got to make one free throw and it's over because it's like eight or nine seconds to go in the game. So I get up and I shoot the first one, I clank it. I missed the hell out of it. So I'm sitting there getting ready to shoot the next one. Sam Jones walks up to me and says something to me, then walks away. I shoot, I make the free throw, we win the game. So everybody says, "What did Sam say? Did he tell you how important, how big a shot this was?" No. All Sam said to me was, "Do you know why you missed that free throw?" Why? "You did not flex your knees on the shot. When you flex your knees you're a good free throw shooter. When you don't flex your knees you don't shoot good. So just flex your knees and don't worry about it." Now that's the kind of guy Sam was. On his shots, everything was programmed, so he was not thinking about the importance of the shot, all he was thinking about was how to make the shot.

You told Shaquille O'Neal once not to worry about his free throws so much and concentrate on the strengths that he had.

Bill Russell: What we always did with the Celtics was, when we hit a bad streak, we would not worry or concern ourselves about what we did poorly. We would go back and consider, "Against this team, what did we do well?" And that's what we're going to do the rest of the game. And so, when I told Shaquille that, there was a writer there that said, "You've got to learn to make a free throw," and I said, "Listen, I would never say that to you. Of course you should shoot better free throws, of course, but do not let that be the dominant theme of your improvement. If I was going to tell you about anything to improve, make yourself the best passing center in the league." Because in the way the game is played today, the single most important skills a team can have is be a good passing team. Because with these zones, and man-to-man zones, and two and three and all that crap, there are always passing lanes open. And to be able to know what kind of pass to use in a passing lane. Players, for example, we should practice peripheral vision, so that I can see both my hands now, okay? But when we're shooting a pass it's like a beam of light, you narrow it so that you can do that. Now if I narrow my vision to pass to you, someone could stand one foot outside that and you cannot see them. They can reach in the lane, but if they step outside your narrow vision you can't see them. And you really, this is actual, they can't see you. So you can actually hide in plain sight.

Even when you're really tall?

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell: Yeah! So we just took on the vision, understanding that the good players, one of the things they have mostly is good vision. And another thing they have is stamina.

You said good feet also.

Bill Russell: Yes, yes. You've got to take care of your feet, because everything starts there. Everything. No matter what you're doing, it starts with your feet.

Before we leave 1968 altogether, can we talk about game seven for a minute? In 1968 you limited your friend Wilt Chamberlain to two shot attempts in the entire second half of game seven.

Bill Russell: That's not true at all. That was a coach's decision. I was the coach, okay? There was an adjustment we had to make.

There was a forward on their team named Chet Walker, and he was hurting us badly, okay? So I had my backup center, it was a guy named Wayne Embry. Now Embry had been in the league seven or eight years, and he played against Wilt all those years. So at half time I said to him, "Wayne, I'm going to try something. It's not new. I want you to guard Wilt. Okay? I have to take care of Chet Walker." And see, when I made that substitution everybody thought it was trying to stay out of foul trouble, something like that, which was to me the best part of that because I made adjustments that they didn't know what I was doing. So they couldn't make a counter adjustment. You see if you make an adjustment, and they know what you're doing, well they can just counter it. But I made an adjustment, they thought it was to get off of Wilt. They didn't know it was to get on Chet. Now Wilt had a game plan, but his game plan was counting on me trying to guard him. When we put Wayne on him, he guarded him a completely different way.

He was used to you guarding him.

Bill Russell: Yes. To me, the pretty part of it was -- I hate to use the word beauty -- is that Wayne had enormous experience guarding him. So it wasn't like you took some guy out of the stands and put him on Wilt. Here's a guy who's been guarding him for years. That adjustment was for Chet Walker, it wasn't for Wilt.

Can you talk us through the last minute of the 1968 finals?

Bill Russell: It was a close game, but we were in charge. So they got to the place where they've got to foul us. So they fouled, and we make free throws and they go down, and they score and make three fouls. So they get down to 12 seconds to go. That's when the thing with Sam came up. It was going to that series. After we got down three to one...

I'm the coach, okay, and so I'm talking to my guys before the fifth game. And I says, "We're going to beat these guys, and this is how we're going to do it." And we had a rookie on the team who's now a judge in Boston, because he had an ailment, he had to retire, but he told me a few years ago, he said, "You know, I was in the locker room when you said that. That's the most disciplined situation I've ever been in my life, because I had to discipline myself from falling out on the floor laughing, when you said we're going to beat these guys." He says, "They're going to kill us!" And he says, "We haven't got a chance!" And he sat there and watched the whole thing happen. And he says that's one of the wonders of his life, because I said it with complete confidence. And then I said, like I said earlier, "We don't have to win three games in a row. We've just got to win one." You see, after we won two of them, the pressure completely shifts. The pressure is on them. You're up three to one, and how do you lose three straight?

So it was basically routine.

I think that that move that I made at half time was the most important move I made as a coach in that series, because it worked, and we got accomplished what we wanted to get accomplished without them knowing what we were trying to accomplish. See everybody still talks about the fact that Wilt only took two shots. They still almost won the game, right? And the key was that Chet Walker had been killing us. And I knew that I could guard him. And the reason I knew I could guard him is his moves were very deliberate. As part of my teaching myself, I learned -- we had six plays and nowadays they number those positions. One is point guard, two is shooting guard, three is a small forward, four is a power forward, five is a center. Well, I made a point to learn how to play all those positions on all six plays. Now not that I ever wanted to or hoped to play in those other positions, but in knowing those positions I know the problems that go with that position. So that if my teammate needed help I can help. And on defense I watched these guys, how they play defense, and I know how to guard almost any position. And I physically took over Chet.

That must have been one surprised ballplayer.

Bill Russell: No, it was like, "What's going on there?" Everybody thought I was getting me away from Wilt. And I don't think it ever dawned on them, even today, that what I was doing was to guard Chet, because he was another one of those great players that nobody talks about in the Hall of Fame.

You made a pretty effective block against Chet Walker at the end of that game, didn't you?

Bill Russell: Oh, yeah. I hate to sound this way, but it was routine. I had him in plain sight.

The key to really being effective at blocking shots is for the shooter to think he's gotten away. And that way you can block it, you can control it. You don't knock it in his stance, you treat it like...when the ball leaves his hand you treat it like a rebound, you hit it to some place that you can get it. And so that block with Chet was part of the plan. You see the one thing that my coach and I, we used to always talk about, the least amount of things you leave to chance, the better off you are. And so we were -- offensively and defensively -- always on the attack, because Red used to say, "I don't need to scout, I don't need to scout." I said, "Red, why don't you need to scout?" "The hell with them. I don't worry about what they do, let them worry about what we're going to do."

I played in this dumb number of seventh games. You know -- the last game. Either you win, or if you lose you go home. And I have a perfect record. Won all of them, including college and the Olympics. And so I was talking with the kids at the NBA, and first they asked me, "Were you scared?" I said no. "You weren't scared?" No. So he comes in with five different ways of asking me was I scared. "Didn't this scare you?" No, I was not scared. "Okay, were you nervous?" No. "You weren't scared? You weren't nervous?" No. In fact, Sam Jones and I kid about it all the time. Every seventh game that Sam was there, I came to the seventh game, I had a black suit on. And he says, "Why do you always wear a black suit to these games?" I said, "Because I'm the undertaker. I've come to bury these people!" Sam and I used to kid about that all the time. He says, "You always wear a black suit." "Yep, I'm the undertaker. I come to bury these guys." So finally -- a guy kept asking was I nervous or was I scared. So finally I said, "Listen, there was no reason for me to be scared or nervous. I did not have to play against Bill Russell and the Celtics. What was there to be nervous or scared about?" You probably think I'm really modest, right?

They didn't even count how many shots you blocked back in those days, did they?

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell: No, they started counting blocked shots four or five years after I retired. Almost never does anybody get in the Hall of Fame based on anything other than their scoring average. So there's no stat for playing good defense. Everybody will tell you that to win you've got to play good defense, but they have no stat for what's a good defense. It doesn't bother me, because I know what I know, okay? Now the way I look at it is -- my junior varsity team in high school, the coach did not like basketball, but he was a great man. One of the most pivotal influences in my life was my high school basketball coach.

What was his name?

Bill Russell: George Powles. In fact, he coached at one time: Bill Russell, who was the first black coach in all of major sports; Frank Robinson, who was a teammate of mine in high school, the first black manager in baseball; Curt Flood, who changed baseball and sports forever, because without him there would be no free agency; and the great player named Vada Pinson. We were all in the same school at the same time.

What school was that?

Bill Russell: McClymonds in West Oakland, who just won the California state championship again this year.

Basketball?

Bill Russell: Yes.

The legacy continues.

Bill Russell: Paul Silas, he went to the same school. When he was there they won 108-some straight games. So we used to always call ourselves "The School of Champions."

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!

What kind of racism did you experience yourself back then, in your early career?

Bill Russell: Well you see -- about racism -- and about a lot of things, it is far more important to understand than to be understood. Now my high school coach told us, "The referee's going to cheat you, and when you guys start playing, and guys find out they can't compete, they're going to try to pick a fight. And if you react to that, here's what will happen. If you fight, if you get into a fist fight, in the papers it will say it was a riot, and you're a bunch of thugs. If you get into two or three fights, you're just a bunch of thugs. So no fights. Not that..." the coach said it very clear, "It's not that I don't think you can fight, because we know better, but we want to win games. So what we do is when a team tries to provoke you into a fight, don't fight, play harder. Embarrass them with the game." Whether they try to pick a fight, I'm not going to fight. "You scared?" No. Whatever, let's play. And I've used that, for example.

Bill Russell Interview Photo
When I was a sophomore in college, in junior college, we played on the West Coast. We were in a small league, the California Basketball Association. The big league was the Pacific Coast Conference, which at that time consisted of Idaho, Idaho State, Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA, okay, and our conference, College of the Pacific and Loyola, Marymount. College of the Pacific had one black player, and I think Loyola might have had two, but I know they had one. Cal had one black player, UCLA had three. Idaho, Idaho State: none. Washington, Washington State: none. Oregon, Oregon State: none. Stanford: none. Cal: one. UCLA: three. USC: none. So now we played against all these guys and we're getting tons, literally -- well, baskets we'll say -- of hate mail, because we had three black starters. In San Francisco itself, the school used to get letters of complaints from local Catholic parents that the school should not be giving scholarships to all these black guys when deserving young white Catholics could be using those scholarships. I had to discipline myself.

I had an agenda, and there was nothing that was going to get me away from that. And my agenda was to win every game, if possible. Nothing that anyone externally or internally could do to change that. And so, you're operating in a place where the only thing keeps you going is you know that you are right. Like my college coach -- who was incidentally a good man but we never got along. As a player and a coach it was oil and water. First game against Cal, their center had been pre-season All American, all that. The first five shots he took, I blocked. So they called time out. They had never seen anything like this, because there was nobody blocking shots before. When I started blocking shots I had never seen anybody block a shot. So they called time out. They go in their huddle. We go in our huddle. The first thing my coach says to me is, "You can't play defense that way." And I'm thinking, "Why would you say that?" He said, "This is the way I want you to play defense." And he showed me right there. He wanted me to half-man him, keep this at his back, and deny the passes to him. Well, I tried that. He had his little point guard, took one dribble to his right, dropped a bounce pass, he caught it, turned, I'm on his back, out of defense, he shoots the lay-up. He does that three times in a row, my coach never said anything. That was the way he wanted me to play. So I said -- mentally -- I said to myself, "No. Not going to happen." So I went back to playing the way I knew how to play. As a consequence, for three years we were in this big argument about that I was a lousy defensive player because the mantra -- if you want to call it that -- in those days was, "No good defensive player ever leaves his feet." I couldn't block shots without leaving my feet. So I was violating all the preconceived rules. When I think that it never occurred to them that this was an innovation -- I just give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they never expected an innovation to come out of the projects of West Oakland.

This is really fun talking to you.

Bill Russell: I'm going to tell you something. You will never encounter a person that had more fun than I did in my profession.

Could you give us an example?

Bill Russell: Like the first game, I sat there after the guy got three lay-ups. I shot him out the rest of the game, okay? I knew what I had done and I enjoyed it. No matter what anybody else on the planet said, I tried something, it had worked. And I knew that it worked.

We played in a tournament in Oklahoma City, and boy was that fun. Well, what happened was we were eighth seeded in an eight-team tournament. So what happens when you're the eighth team, they make you play the first team, first game. So it was Wichita, or Wichita State now. And they had never heard of USF -- the coach -- because he told me a story later, he thought it was San Francisco State. When he found out it wasn't San Francisco State, he sent his brother out to scout us. The game he scouted was the last game we lost in college. So we lost to UCLA at Westwood. So a week or two later, we were playing in Oklahoma City, and so just before he goes out, his brother gives him the scouting report. He said, "I don't know what to tell you about these guys. They cannot play a lick. They got two guards; they can't put the ball in the ocean." One of them was K.C. Jones. "And they've got this tall colored kid playing center. He doesn't do anything." You see, in my college career, my college team never had a play for me to shoot. The only time I got a shot was when we were freelancing it before they had a chance to set the offense up. So he says, "This colored guy, he doesn't do anything. All he does is jump. So sometimes he would just stand there and jump for no reason at all. So you starters, they can't give you a game. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that the good high school teams in Kansas could beat these guys. So you don't worry about it." So okay, the game starts. So three minutes into the game, they call time out. The score is 25 to three.

Bill Russell: We were 30 points ahead at half time. Another thing. Our coach, he would never pour it on, so our starters only played three minutes of the second half and we still won by 19.

That does sound like fun.

Bill Russell: In that tournament, in the championship game, we played Red Auerbach's old college team. And his coach was still playing. And we watched his coach lose two games. And one thing about him, he's very stoic. He'd sit there like this and never move, and he'd say, "So-and-so go in. Go in for that guy." He'd never move. He would just sit there. No matter what, he never moved. So I said to K.C., "I'm going to make him flinch." I said, "I don't know how, but I'm going to make him move." So second half, I think, and we outscored them 22 to one, just broke the game open. So what they tried was -- they had a six-eight forward, but their center was only six-six, and the forward guarding the six-eight guy was six-three. So they said, "What we'll do is put the six-eight guy at the post, and the center will go out and play forward." I don't know what they thought, but when that center went out to forward, I grabbed my six-three forward in the back, without saying a word, and told him to go guard the center out there. So the guy that he was guarding backed into the post, he didn't know I was behind him. So he gets the ball, he turns around, he sees me and he shoots the ball over the backboard. And I turned and looked at the coach and he goes (mimics flinch.) And we used to do things like that all the time, and it was so much fun, not only the winning, but how we won and how we had an agenda and to see it unfold was fun.

You became a player-coach -- the first African American coach in major league sports. How did that come about?

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell: Well, my coach was my friend, okay? We won eight straight championships, which is pretty good. And he says to me, "You know I've got to find a replacement. Do you want the job?" "Of course not. I watched you go through this stuff for ten years. Do you think I want to try that?" He says, "Okay. I'm not going to hire a coach that you do not give me 100 percent approval." He says, "I'm not going to let some guy come in here and start messing with you, because you've been too much to this franchise and played too hard for this franchise." He said the first thing a guy is going to do, if we get the wrong guy, is to say, "I'm not Red Auerbach, so I got to coach the way I want to coach." And one of the first things he's going to attack is the fact that after I got in shape I didn't practice anymore. And that came about because Red and I worked out a formula of minutes.

I would play the first ten minutes and sit down the last two minutes, and three minutes between quarters, and then there's 15 minutes between half time. So I was playing 46 minutes a game. And he asked me one day what's wrong with me, and I said, "I'm tired." He said, "You're tired?" I said yeah. He said, "Well, don't practice." He says it didn't make sense to play for 46 minutes of a game and then wear you out in practice too. Everybody has a limited amount of stamina, and I have to take that into consideration. And also, I worked out a formula how I could rest while on the court without going to the bench.

So he says, "I'm going to make a list of six guys, and you make a list of six guys. And we find one guy that fits on both lists, that could be our new coach." There was no match. So he says, "Well, I'm going to hire this guy." I says, "Oh no. If you hire this guy..." -- he brought his name up -- "... if you hire him, I'm retiring with you." He says, "You mean that?" "Yes, I do. I'm not going to play for him. I don't even want to be in the same room with him." And so he said, "What do you want me to do?" I go, "Okay. I'll take it. You offered it to me first, I'll take it. But if it doesn't work -- and we'll see whether it works or not -- we can bring in somebody else, even if it's midseason and I will never complain and I'll play just as hard for him as I play for you." Because we were both interested in what was good for the Celtics and not what makes him look good or me look good or bad or whatever. It has nothing to do with anything. That's how I became the player-coach. But one thing I have to add is that, because I'm kind of hard-headed, I refused to have an assistant coach. And one of the reasons -- not the total reason, but one of the reasons -- was I knew that to do a good job right I had to completely, totally immerse myself into the position. And if I hired an assistant coach I would start laying off things for him to do that I should be doing, things that I watched Red do for ten years. See, he never had an assistant coach. Like one time he said to me, "Do you want me to hire you an assistant coach?" I said, "Yeah, we'll just hire one of yours." He had never had one!

What do you think when people make comparisons between today's players and the players who came before?

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell: Sports Illustrated came out with a copy and said, "Is Dennis Rodman the greatest rebounder?" And Wilt called me up immediately and he was outraged. He said, "You kidding me? What does he average? Twelve? Thirteen rebounds a game?" See, Wilt averaged 22.9 and I averaged 22.5. So I says to Wilt, I says, "It's obvious to me that you were the greatest rebounder ever." He says, "Why do you say that?" I said, "Well, I was 22.5, you averaged 22.9. But you did it for 14 seasons and I did it for 13 seasons. He says, "Well I differ with you." I say, "Why would you do that?" He says, "Well, you hold all the rebound records in the playoffs. There's nobody even close to your total rebounds at playoffs." In fact, I needed about three or four more rebounds in my career and I would have averaged 25 rebounds a game in playoffs, because I was at 24.9.

Which one of you holds the record for number of rebounds per game?

Bill Russell: No. He holds that! Against me!

But not by much.

Bill Russell: He got 55. Fifty-five! Can you imagine that?

Didn't you get 50 once?

Bill Russell: I got 51. But that was against another team

That's not bad.

Bill Russell: No, we're the only two guys ever did 50. And we had tons of games in the 40s. But in the New York paper, they used to accuse me of pretending I was his friend so he'd take it easy. Some guy said that. So I said, "Let me tell you a couple of things. First of all, I want you to explain to me how getting 55 rebounds on me is taking it easy! I want to find out that one. And second, you're always saying about what I did to Wilt What I did to Wilt? If you win eight straight championships you did that to everybody. You can't just say I beat Wilt. I beat everybody!

You left Boston after retirement. Why is that?

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell: Well, I'm embarrassed to say I had a broken marriage. "Irrevocably broken" the word is. And if I wasn't playing for the Celtics there was nothing for me to do in Boston. But I had to feed my wife and three kids. So what was I going to do in Boston? There was nothing for me to do, so to get away from the broken marriage and trying to figure out a way to take care of my kids, I went to Los Angeles. I have an uncle in New York but I couldn't stay on the East Coast. The reason I went to Los Angeles was, as I said, "That's a place where you could make a nice living with no talent!"

There was a Speaker's Bureau in Boston, and they asked if I would do a couple of college speaking tours in '68. So I said, "I think I'm going to drive to L.A. in the summer." So they made two speaking dates and that would pay for my trip there and back. So I spoke in Minnesota -- it might have been mostly Minnesota. First it was at Mankato State. After I spoke and left the guy that arranged the speech for the college, he brought all of his contemporaries at other schools and said, "This is a guy you might want to have come to talk." So the first two years after I retired from the Celtics, I ended up doing 200 speeches in colleges. That's what I did for a while, until ABC asked me to do the basketball games.

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Boston had a reputation -- until a very short time ago -- for racism. There were no black guys on the Red Sox, for example, for many years.

Bill Russell: A couple of things about that. First of all, they earned their reputation, okay? But they were no worse than New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco. They just got notoriety for it, but they weren't any worse. I don't know if you remember that in San Francisco, when Willie Mays moved out there, he bought a house and somebody came by and threw a brick through his window. Did you know that?

Lenny Wilkens told us in an interview for the Academy of Achievement that in the early 1960s, in the South, players on his team were told, "You can't stay at this hotel." Did that happen to you too?

Bill Russell: Yeah. We stopped it, because the only place we had any problem was St. Louis, where Wilkens was playing.

We were in a game in Kentucky in 1960. We refused to play, because they wouldn't feed us. Now there are a couple of things about that that most people don't know. We insisted that the white players play the game. You know, here's a team, they stick with our team together and all of that. I know I personally did not want that, because I did not want to make it so that these white guys are taking care of the black guys. We are men who can take care of themselves. And that's what I wanted to emphasize more than anything else. So that the black guys did not play, but the white guys did play. In fact, I applaud them for playing. Because I wanted us to say, "We are not going to put up with this." You see? It's like, if the whole team had left, it would have been like the Celtics sponsored us. I did not want the Celtics to sponsor us. If I wanted to, Walter Brown would have, 'cause he was a great man. Okay? All he had to do is -- just any indication. In fact, when we got to Boston, he apologized to us for this happening to his team.

So they wouldn't let you eat in a restaurant?

Bill Russell: Yeah. And they tried to make some changes while we were there.

First, the guy that owned the restaurant said that -- owned the hotel, was a manager too -- and he said, "Well listen, I'm sorry it happened, but I'll tell you what. I'll invite all you guys up to my private suite and you can have dinner with me." I said to Red, "Who the hell does he think I want to have dinner with him? I don't want to have dinner with him. I don't know him. The heck with that." Then they called back and said, "Well, if you guys play, we will not segregate in that restaurant after this, so that will be the end of the segregation in that restaurant." And I said, "Red, I want to explain something to you. There's nothing that's going to happen or be said today or tonight that will change the fact that we're not going to play." You see, because if you did it any other way, if we had played, it would be a minor incident and the people would think, "Well, this is how we can get around that." See, I wanted them to know that this is totally unacceptable and there are no compromises that can be made. And to my knowledge -- I don't know if I'm 100 percent correct -- but I don't think there was another. That was the last all-white game in the NBA.

But in spite of these kind of problems, you still say that your professional life was fun for you.

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell: That's right. You see, all these things happening, in a sense, gave me something to do! To come up with a system to deal with it that does not impact you negatively is invigorating. Walter Brown, the owner, calls me up one time and says, "You won't believe what happened! I was at the owner's meeting and the Knickerbockers had come up with a new rule they were going to make, and they had the votes to pass it." And the rule was "no facial hair on any player in the NBA." That's like the Yankees now, right? So Walter Brown said no. "What do you mean no? We got the votes." "I don't care, not going to do it." "What do you mean you're not going to do it?" "Not going to do it. " He said, "Listen, you guys in New York. There are two players in the NBA wearing beards: Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. You don't have either one of them. Now every time they come in the building you have standing room only. Why do you think you have a right to mess with them? They're not your players. And if the crowds are coming to see them, they must accept it, right? I'm not going to let you do that. And besides that, my player would probably quit and sue the hell out of you for restraint of trade." And the next year The New York Times Sunday Magazine called the Knickerbockers. They wanted to put Bill Russell on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. For the very first time they were going to put an NBA player on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

We were practicing at the Garden, the Boston Garden, and Red says, "After practice I want you to come down to the office. I want you to listen to something." So in those days, they had a speaker phone, a little box that sat on their desk, and he called this guy, a PR guy for the Knicks. "Hey, Red! Put Russell on an airplane and get him down here this afternoon. The New York Times Sunday Magazine wants to put him on the cover. I don't know why they want to use him. There's a whole bunch of guys better looking than him. Why do they want to put him? I don't know, but send him down here anyway. This afternoon." So Red said, "I can't send him any place. I have to talk to him and I'll call you back." The guy didn't know I was sitting there listening. And so Red says, "What do you think?" I said, "The hell with him." I cleaned it up for you! I says, "The hell with him and The New York Times Sunday Magazine." He says, "Well, I'll just say this. I'm not going to ask you what to do, or give you any indication of what you should do, but you being on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Magazine -- which is the largest circulation magazine in the country -- would be helpful to the league. You know, we're still trying to get complete major league acceptance. So that would help." I said, "Okay, if you put it that way, but I'm not going down today." I said, "We play them next Tuesday."

"You tell him next Tuesday. What I'll do is I'll go down early and have them set up a room and I'll go and take the pictures at three o'clock. Okay?"

So I go down there and I go over to the Garden and they got this room with the vanilla paper they used to use. So this guy from the Knicks walks in there and I'm taking my stuff out of my travel bag. And he walks to me and hands me this bag, a brown paper bag. "What's this?" "Razor and shaving cream. You can't go on The New York Times Sunday Magazine with no beard!" I said, "Okay. You don't have a beard, you take the picture!" I didn't say it that nice though! And I packed my stuff back up and went back to the hotel and went to sleep. Well, the next week, every day for a week, we get calls from The New York Times: "We'd like to reschedule, and we guarantee you nobody from the Knickerbockers will be in the building!"

Thank you so much for the great interview. We can't thank you enough.

Bill Russell: Well, as we used to say in West Oakland, "Knock it off."




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