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Sportsman of the Year BILL RUSSELL
George Plimpton
December 23, 1968
The year was crammed with excellence. In one two-week period Arthur Ashe won the U.S. Nationals at Brookline, went to Forest Hills and became the first amateur to win a major international open tennis championship. Jean-Claude Killy's triple Olympic triumph brought a fresh, engaging personality to world attention. O.J. Simpson demonstrated that if he wasn't the best running back in college football history, he was good enough to make that proposition grounds for a valid debate. Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, Bob Beamon and Al Oerter, Lee Trevino and Kip Keino, Debbie Meyer, Peggy Fleming, Dan Gurney, Mickey Lolich, Earl Morrall, Gordie Howe—the honors list for achievement in sport in 1968 is long and distinguished, a fact that adds luster to this choice of Sportsman of the Year. The career of Bill Russell (see cover) is astonishing for its consistent brilliance. Still, in 1968, he brought to it a new dimension; as coach as well as star player of the Celtics—leading and doing—he drove his group of veterans to Boston's 10th world championship since he joined the team 12 years ago. The photographs at left are highlights of the playoffs for the title between Boston and Los Angeles. At a time when the host of superb Negro athletes commands esteem for performance, Russell has proved his ability to lead athletes of both races—and leadership has been an area of sport inaccessible to black men. What follows is the narrative of a day recently spent with Russell, interspersed with comments on the man by those who know him best, his fellow Celtics.
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December 23, 1968

Sportsman Of The Year Bill Russell

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The year was crammed with excellence. In one two-week period Arthur Ashe won the U.S. Nationals at Brookline, went to Forest Hills and became the first amateur to win a major international open tennis championship. Jean-Claude Killy's triple Olympic triumph brought a fresh, engaging personality to world attention. O.J. Simpson demonstrated that if he wasn't the best running back in college football history, he was good enough to make that proposition grounds for a valid debate. Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, Bob Beamon and Al Oerter, Lee Trevino and Kip Keino, Debbie Meyer, Peggy Fleming, Dan Gurney, Mickey Lolich, Earl Morrall, Gordie Howe—the honors list for achievement in sport in 1968 is long and distinguished, a fact that adds luster to this choice of Sportsman of the Year. The career of Bill Russell (see cover) is astonishing for its consistent brilliance. Still, in 1968, he brought to it a new dimension; as coach as well as star player of the Celtics—leading and doing—he drove his group of veterans to Boston's 10th world championship since he joined the team 12 years ago. The photographs at left are highlights of the playoffs for the title between Boston and Los Angeles. At a time when the host of superb Negro athletes commands esteem for performance, Russell has proved his ability to lead athletes of both races—and leadership has been an area of sport inaccessible to black men. What follows is the narrative of a day recently spent with Russell, interspersed with comments on the man by those who know him best, his fellow Celtics.

REFLECTIONS IN A DIARY

The trophies are downstairs in a cellar room that has a covered pool table in the middle, an unstocked bar at one end and posters of Allen Ginsberg and Marlon Brando on the wall. The room is dark and dusty and, unlike most athletes' trophy rooms, apparently little used. Russell says that one day he hopes to devote the floor space to a large electric train system for his children and also for himself. He'd clear everything out for that, including the trophies. These stand in a tall case against one wall—rows of them, mostly yard-high replicas of players poised, right arm up, to shoot one-handed shots with silver basketballs. They commemorate one of the most remarkable records in sports: 14 years of play at the pinnacle of basketball—two years leading the University of San Francisco to the national championship and then 12 years with the Boston Celtics, leading them to two second-place finishes and 10 world championships.

Russell inserts a key. The heavy glass doors slide on smooth runners. He bends and peers in. He fishes out an Olympic gold medal, as small as a fifty-cent piece in his big hands. He won it as a member of the 1956 Olympic basketball team.

His favorite trophy in the case? He points at one of the less towering, one which marks the beginning of his career, a tall silver figure on a white base. He won it in a tournament promoted by the San Francisco Examiner, as the Bay Area's Most Promising Young Player. At the time he was 19 years old and a freshman at the University of San Francisco.

He leads the way upstairs. He walks stiffly, bending to get his 6'9" height through doors. Upstairs the house is lively. His wife Rose and the children are there: Jacob, Kenyatta and Buddha, named after Russell's heroes in history. A dog is underfoot: Patches, a boxer, nervous perhaps because Russell dislikes him (he tracks in asthma, Russell says) and whose legs Bill mockingly keeps threatening to break. The living room is tasteful—a grand piano, a mobile hanging from the ceiling, African artifacts (spears and masks on the wall), peacock plumes in a vase and a ceiling-high bookcase crowded with volumes, many by Negro leaders and athletes. A complete set of Hogarth's sketches in bound volumes stretches along the bottom shelf. Russell moves through the room chatting with the children, ducking his head to clear a ceiling lamp on the landing, an instinctive move that he would doubtless make if the room were in pitch darkness.

SAM JONES: Russell was slow settling down in Boston. When I came to the Celtics he'd been with them a year and he had just moved from the Hotel Lenox in the city into a different house out in Reading. There wasn't anything in it for a while except a telephone, a refrigerator and a rocking chair. This one time I was out there—I remember the date, Nov. 2, 1957—Rose was pregnant. Not only that but she was having birth pains there in the living room, rocking back and forth in that rocking chair, and Bill was off somewhere in the only car. I said to her, "Don't do anything. Wait till Bill comes back." I've had five kids since, but I didn't know anything then, so I stood over her and I wrung my hands and she rocked back and forth and I said, "Please, please wait till Bill gets back. He'll know what to do...he can handle anything."

Out in back of the house is a small pale blue swimming pool, emptied, with a carpet of autumn leaves in the bottom, a chair facing the deep end and a bicycle leaning against the shallow-end side. There are seven or eight bird-houses in the yard; Rose Russell, a girl of lively curiosity, is an amateur bird watcher. Russell himself collects phonograph records. He has 4,000, one of which he selects, a big-beat single, and puts on the turntable. The volume is very high. He talks through the sound: "Track was what I was first interested in at college, because the track team had a sweater that buttoned down the front with S.F. on it for San Francisco. The other sports had nothing like that. The first meet, I went out and jumped 6 feet 7 inches for the sweater."

TOM (SATCH) SANDERS: He's nicely hooked on clothes. Last year it was Nehru jackets and love beads—his kick as an overgrown love-child. This year it's Africa—caftans and sandals. We shake our heads when we consider what he might turn up in next year.

The record comes to an end and Russell puts on another. "Track is really psychic," he says. "There wasn't a guy I jumped against I couldn't beat if I had the chance to talk to him beforehand. I talked to Charlie Dumas and we tied. After that he never talked and he went on to those world records. I recall we had one big meet with 34 jumpers. They wanted to start the bar at five-eight. I said, 'Let's start it at six-four—let's get rid of all this garbage.' I wore a silk scarf, basketball shoes, a track suit and black glasses. I took off the glasses to jump. I had no trouble that time. I loved track. I was completely loose—never got worried or sick before an event...loose as ashes."

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