My Time with Bill Russell

| by Edge of Sports

True story. In 1995, I studied for more than a month on an island off the coast of Chile in a farming community with no electricity or running water.

One day I overheard two young men talking and one said, "Esta cosa es Bill Russell!" I did a double take: "This thing is Bill Russell???" I asked what they were talking about and learned that to say something was "Bill Russell" in their community was an expression for something truthful and not to be doubted. It was a way to end an argument without further discussion if you were utterly confident that you were factually correct.  

Apparently years earlier there had been a huge dust-up between two young men on the island about whether Bill Russell had gone to the University of San Francisco or UCLA. It lasted hours. When they finally were able to take a boat into town and look up the fact that yes he went to San Fran, the community vowed to never again waste time on such pointless debates. From then on, a person who was deeply confident in a factual position could just say, "It's Bill Russell" and the discussion would cease. "Bill Russell" was the truth.

For 15 years, I've dreamed of actually telling the real Bill Russell that story. Even for me, a kid who grew up breaking out into hives every time Bird, McHale, and Parrish sauntered into Madison Square Garden draped in Kelly green, I respected and admired Bill Russell. It wasn't the 11 championships in 13 years or the fact that he never lost a game 7. It's that he stood for something. On the Mt Rushmore of athletes who used their platform to make a difference, Russell stands with Ali, Ashe, and Billie Jean.

I literally had dreams about craning my neck, looking Bill Russell in the eye and saying, "It's Bill Russell." On April 15th I was finally able to do it and I did it in front of 500 people, including 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos. I was emceeing the Heroes in Sports gala hosted every year by the remarkable Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. Russell flew across the country from his home in the Pacific Northwest to induct his friend and former teammate Thomas "Satch" Sanders into the Center's Hall of Fame. The Center is an organization that unabashedly attempts to organize for the social good through sports and Bill Russell was right at home. In introducing Russell to induct "Satch", I was finally able to tell the "Bill Russell" story. But the highlight of the evening had actually taken place several hours earlier.

At a cocktail party before the festivities, I approached Russell with more than a little trepidation. Most of us in sports media have had the experience of meeting one of our heroes and wishing we'd saved ourselves the trouble. There's a part of us that doesn't think our idols have the right to be cranky, grumpy, silly, stinky - in other words human. Sometimes the fantasy is best left untouched.

But Bill Russell was everything I could have dreamed. (And thank you to John Carlos for making the introduction.) Not only was he open and friendly, he within seconds told me a story from his past. It wasn't a story about facing Wilt or blocking Oscar. It was about standing up to a radio talk show host in 1968. "He said to me that those Olympic protesters (Smith and Carlos) should be arrested and should have their citizenship revoked. I asked him why and he said politics have no place at the Olympics. I asked him if he knew how [Olympic President] Avery Brundage prevented Marty Glickman [a Jewish American] from running in Berlin in 1936 so Hitler wouldn't be embarrassed. So it's really about who is allowed to be political." Carlos piped in, "I know that's the last time you were on that show!"

Mr. Russell also chatted about today's players, the corrupting influence of mega contracts on the game and other topics I won't repeat, except to say that his personal generosity was remarkable for anyone: famous or otherwise. He was effortless and beautifully human.

Perhaps Mr. Russell was in high spirits because he was with his friend Satch Sanders. In his speech inducting Satch, he remembered, "I once said to Nelson Mandela how lucky I felt to be alive at the same time as him. I feel that way about Satch Sanders. Satch, it was a deep lifelong pleasurable experience to play on a team with you. And I will say that when I left the Celtic locker room, I said I didn't care about going to heaven because it would be a step down. That feeling was because of friends like Satch."

There were a few dusty eyes in the crowd but Satch cleared it up by saying as he approached the lectern, "I never thought I'd hear Bill Russell tell the truth so eloquently!"

This was an older Bill Russell, his hair and beard snow white, his back still ramrod straight yet his neck slightly bent. But his spirit, his character, and his proud political will were even more indomitable in person than they are in the history books. It was an honor to meet him and I really do feel that all of us, whether you are a basketball fan or not, owe him a debt. And THAT dear readers, is "Bill Russell."


[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].]