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The Ring Leader
Frank Deford
May 10, 1999
The greatest team player of all time, Bill Russell was the hub of a Celtics dynasty that ruled its sport as no other team ever has
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May 10, 1999

The Ring Leader

The greatest team player of all time, Bill Russell was the hub of a Celtics dynasty that ruled its sport as no other team ever has

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Tommy Heinsohn, who played with Russell for nine years and won 10 NBA tides himself, as player and coach, sums it up best: "Look, all I know is, the guy won two NCAA championships, 50-some college games in a row, the ['56] Olympics, then he came to Boston and won 11 championships in 13 years, and they named a f——— tunnel after Ted Williams." By that standard, only a cathedral on a hill deserves to have Bill Russell's name attached to it.

But then, too often when I try to explain the passion of Russell himself and his devotion to his team and to victory, I'm inarticulate. It's like trying to describe a color to a blind person. All I can say, in tongue-tied exasperation, is, You had to be there. And I'm sorry for you if you weren't.

Russell was right, too. The two of us did go our separate ways after he dropped me at the airport. He left the playing life exactly 30 years ago this week, on May 5, 1969, with his last championship, and my first child was born on May 7. So there were new things we both had to do, and in the years that followed we were together only a couple of times, briefly.

Then a few weeks ago we met at his house in Seattle, and for the first time in 30 years I climbed into his car. The license plate on the Lexus reads KELTIC 6, and on the driver's hands were two NBA championship rings: his first, from '57, and his last, from 12 years later. We took off together for the San Francisco Bay Area, there to visit Bill's father, Charlie, who is 86 and lives in a nursing home. It was 13 hours on the road. We stopped along the way at McDonald's and for gas and for coffee and for a box of Good 'n' Plenty and to pee and to buy lottery tickets once we got over the California line, because there was a big jackpot that week in the Golden State. In Oakland we found a Holiday Inn and ate a fish dinner at Jack London Square, where a bunch of elderly black ladies sat at the next table. "I was thinking they were old," Bill said, nodding his gray head toward them. "Then I remembered, I'm probably their age." I laughed. "Hey, what are you laughing at?" he roared. So, like that, wherever we happened to be going in the car, our destination was really back in time.

Back to the Russell Era. Back to the Celtics and the University of San Francisco Dons, to the Jones Boys and Cooz. Yes, and back to Wilt. To Satch and Heinie and the sixth men. Red, of course. Elgin and Jerry. But more than just the baskets, more than just the '60s. Russell's family experience describes the arc of a century. Why, when Charlie Russell was growing up in Louisiana, he actually knew men and women who had been slaves. He told me about "making marks in the ground" to help his illiterate father calculate. I was baffled by that expression. "It's from the old country," Bill explained. That is, from Africa, centuries before, passed along orally. And as we were talking, and the old man—wearing a jaunty red sweat suit and a green hat—reminisced about more recent times, he suddenly smiled and said something I couldn't quite make out. I leaned closer. "What's that, Mr. Russell? How what?"

"No, Hal" he said. "All on account of Hal Dejulio." Charlie remembered so well, after all this time. You see, if young William hadn't, by chance, been there on the one day that Dejulio showed up at Oakland High in the winter of '51, none of this would have happened. None of it at all. But life often hangs by such serendipitous threads, and sometimes, like this time, we are able to take them and weave them into a scarf for history's neck.

The long trip to Oakland was not unusual for Russell. He enjoys driving great distances. After all, he is most comfortable with himself and next most comfortable with close friends, cackling that thunderous laugh of his that Cousy fears he'll hear resonating in the afterlife. Playful is the surprising word that former Georgetown coach John Thompson thinks of first for Russell, and old number 6 himself always refers to his Celtics as "the guys" in a way that sounds curiously adolescent. Hey, guys, we can put the game on right here!

Cynosure on the court though he was, Russell never enjoyed being the celebrity alone. "I still think he's a shy, mother's son," says Karen Kenyatta Russell, his daughter, "and even now he's uncomfortable being in the spotlight by himself." Maybe that's one reason the team mattered so to him; it hugged him back. "I got along with all the guys," Russell says, "and nobody had to kiss anybody's ass. We were just a bunch of men—and, oh, what marvelous gifts my teammates gave to me."

"He was just so nice to be with on the team," says Frank Ramsey, who played with Russell from 1956 to '64, Russell's first eight years in the NBA. "It was only when others came around that he set up that wall."

Russell loves nothing better than to talk. "Oh, the philosophizing," recalls Satch Sanders, who played with Russell from '60 to '69. "If he started off and said, 'You see,' we just rolled our eyes, because we knew he was going off on something." Yet in more recent times Russell went for years without permitting himself to be interviewed. "If I'm going to answer the questions, I want them to be my questions, the right questions," he says—a most unlikely prerogative, given the way journalism works. O.K., so no interviews. Privacy edged into reclusiveness.

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