Rare was the working person around N.B.A. arenas these past few decades who never had an encounter with the majestic Bill Russell. On occasion, mostly a special one, he was an intimidating presence walking tall and transcendent, in the manner of a man who had invented the game.
In the dynastic measure by which we often relate to basketball, from Boston to Los Angeles to Chicago to Golden State, he actually did.
Russell’s death at 88 on Sunday predictably evoked relished memories of meeting the most prolific instigator of championships in the history of American team sports. It is an indisputable fact that time with Russell was not generously dispensed. When it was, only the most hardheaded among us wasn’t better for it.
I was a terrified young reporter for The New York Post in the late 1970s when my editor ordered me to “get Russell” for an assigned story. I found him in the media dining area at the old Spectrum arena in Philadelphia on a Sunday afternoon before a game he was working as network analyst.
As I hopelessly stammered through my introduction, Russell looked up from a plate of food and said nothing. Seconds felt like hours until Billy Cunningham, the 76ers coach, leaned over and came to my rescue. “He’s from Vecsey’s paper,” Cunningham told Russell, referring to Peter Vecsey, the widely known N.B.A. columnist.
This apparently was a useful reference in what was a far more insular N.B.A. environment. Russell nodded and said, “Wait outside for me.” So I parked myself in the first row of seats behind the broadcast table. Ten minutes became 20, then 30, then 60 after Russell took a seat, donned his headset for microphone checks and shuffled through voluminous game notes and stats.
I was literally sweating, and figuratively steaming. Finally, Russell summoned me, shook my hand and said, “Thank you for waiting and respecting my work.”
Lesson learned: Patience may be the most well-cited virtue, but in the interests of professional achievement, so is preparation.
Fast forward to a September 2007 afternoon in a Westchester County suburb of New York, where Russell was speaking to assembled N.B.A. rookies at the league’s transition program. I listened with fascination as Joakim Noah, a player of French, Swedish and Cameroonian descent, asked Russell if he felt underappreciated in racially polarized Boston despite winning 11 titles in 13 seasons, from 1957 through 1969.
“Quite true,” Russell responded in his gravelly voiced, meditative manner. But he elaborated by relaying advice his father had given him as a youth about people who have “these little red wagons that get pulled around and that it’s got nothing to do with me” — meaning that he should not worry about how other people felt about him.
Afterward, I asked Russell how that answer squared with his outspokenness and activism on matters of race and social justice, including his participation in the so-called 1967 Cleveland summit of prominent Black athletes in support of Muhammad Ali following his refusal to be drafted into the U.S. Army.
He reminded me that he had been invited to address the rookie class at large, and that some of the newcomers were not African American. Some were not even American. Russell’s message had been tailored to universal temptation.
“I tell all the kids — rich, poor, Black, white — that you must be your own counsel,” he told me. “We understand that we don’t always want to do the right thing, but what they have to ask themselves is, ‘Am I willing to deal with the consequences?’”
Such contextual awareness sounded familiar to Len Elmore, the former pro center whom I have known since he finished his playing career with the Nets and Knicks before attending Harvard Law School. At Harvard, Elmore happened to befriend Russell’s daughter, Karen. (In 1987, Karen Russell wrote in The New York Times about the frightening, haunting harassment her father and family were subjected to in the Boston area.)
“I had met him a few times in passing and I have a couple videos of my games he was calling, where he described me as ‘well traveled,’” Elmore said with a chuckle when I called him upon hearing of Russell’s passing. “He obviously had a big impact on me, as a center, always talking about blocking the shot but keeping it inbounds, things like that. And of course, off the court, too, with his activism during the civil rights era.”
But it was in law school that Elmore said he actually got to talk to Russell about athlete activism, a subject Elmore has in recent years been teaching at Columbia University.
“It wasn’t like he tried to impress you with big words,” Elmore said. “But what always came across was his wisdom, his ability to conceptualize, to prioritize, to understand time and place. I remember him telling me that by going to law school, I could be part of a generation that could build off what his generation had started, and effect change in a very different way.”
For all the racism Russell and his Black teammates endured in Boston, and the disparities in how white and Black Celtics were paid and in some cases treated by an organization fronted by Red Auerbach, Russell was careful never to implicate the Celtics’ patriarch. For 10 years, Russell starred under Auerbach, who then made him the league’s first Black coach upon stepping away from the bench in 1966.
Which leads me to my last Russell engagement, in May 2009, in a Manhattan hotel lounge while he was promoting a book, “Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend,” published three years after Auerbach’s death.
In the book, Russell wrote that he and Auerbach had seldom socialized or delved into personal or social issues. They were instead bound by basketball, by team, which also was, in effect, family. The patriarch was stubborn, set in his ways, Russell said. Russell’s own willful ways, shaped by a place in Boston and in America which Auerbach could never fully understand, formed the basis of their mutual respect.
“We were so alike that way,” said Russell, who often made the point that he played for the Celtics, not Boston. But the team’s success always came first.
That day in Manhattan, Russell shared some final coaching he’d gotten during his last visit with Auerbach, just as he took his leave. “Listen, Russ, this is something important,” Auerbach told him. “When you get old, don’t fall. Because that’s the start of the end. So remember: Don’t fall!”
Russell, already 75, obviously knew that frailty would eventually visit him, too. Near the end of our interview, he admitted that he’d written the book because, “I also have to be mindful of my own mortality.”
Those words barely spoken, he cut loose one of his trademark boisterous cackles.
Athletic greatness fades. Team dynasties fold. But Bill Russell’s presence, deep into old age, didn’t so much as flicker. While the contemporary best-ever debate is laser focused on Air Jordan versus King James, Russell’s contextualization of the argument only required flashing the ring he wore that 2007 day at the rookie transition program — a gift from the N.B.A. commissioner at the time, David Stern, commemorating all 11 of Russell’s titles.
That remains the truest measure of superstar affirmation within a team sport. It’s also the one all but guaranteed never to fall.