Bill Russell and Arnie Risen play a little game with each other when they meet. Russell crouches by Risen's side, looks up at him through fluttering eyelids and asks in a tone of mingled awe and innocence: "Gee, mister, just how tall are you, really?" Or the question will be: "Gosh, are you a basketball player?" Occasionally, Russell will use the old standby "Can you hear me up there?"—but the answer is always the same, and unprintable.
It is a game, but for Russell and Risen—both 6 feet 9 and teammates on the Boston Celtics professional basketball team—it is also an opportunity to relieve the strain of being polite to the endless number of people who follow them around all day with long, vacant stares and silly questions about their height.
Risen, a gentle, quiet man of 32, plays the game casually and in a low key. Russell gives himself away by the vigor with which he throws himself into the part of the questioner and the loud cackles of glee with which he greets Risen's answers. Bill Russell is desperately sensitive about his height—and about being a Negro. About standing taller than a world of smaller men, and standing out in a world of white men.
At the same time, he is aggressively proud of both. There is a constant warring within him—between the man who wants to run away and hide so no one will ever again call him a goon or insult his race, and the man who glories in the remarkable feats he can accomplish with his long, elastic body and who wears his color like a banner.
He fears both extremes: he ducks out of the most innocent pigeonhole. "I don't want people to stereotype me ever," he says. "You know, they think that every time a colored man goes places, the first thing he does is get himself a Cadillac. I like a Cadillac, I drove'em lots of times. But I wouldn't buy one—you couldn't give me one. I bought my Chrysler last year.... Like you take most people think a tall man always wears clothes too small for him—short in the sleeves, short in the pants, tight in the shoulders and all that jazz.... Not me. You ever see my suits? I get 'em all made special. I get 'em made too big, too long all over...I always try to do things people say I won't do or I can't do."
In his 24 years, Russell has succeeded in doing most of the things he was sure that others felt were impossible, especially on a basketball court. But occasionally he has failed. Just a few months ago he was unable to buy a home in a location of his choice (in Boston, of all places) and settled for a pleasant, modest ranch house in nearby Reading. He lives there now with his pretty, soft-spoken wife Rose, and their 2-month-old son Bill Jr.—easily the most-talked-about athlete in New England and the biggest attraction in the history of professional basketball.
For this complex young man who tries so hard to be different it is apt indeed that fame has come for a reason which never before has stirred the interest of the average fan in most sports, and especially in basketball. Call to mind the truly great ones—the Kurlands, Mikans, Luisettis, Cousys. All drew crowds who came to watch their offensive play. Putting the ball through the hoop, putting it through somehow, is still the most spectacular piece of business on the court. Even today, no official records are kept on the things Russell does better than any man before him, things which few players ever thought of doing. These are acts of defense. They require thought and hard work, as opposed to the exhilarating efforts involved in purely offensive actions. It is the difference between trying to beat the other fellow and trying to keep him from beating you. On the Celtics, Russell concentrates on keeping the opposition from scoring points; his teammates—Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey—will score enough to win if he is reasonably successful.
It is oversimplifying matters to say that Russell succeeds by blocking the opponents' shots at the basket. He does that too, of course, and spectacularly. But hear him:
"Playing good defense takes a lot of practice, sure. But I do a lot of thinking about it too. Look, I can block shots. O.K. If I tried to block all the shots my man takes, I'd be dead. The thing I got to do is make my man think I'm gonna block every shot he takes. How can I do it? O.K., here. Say I block a shot on you. The next time you're gonna shoot, I know I can't block it, but I act exactly the same way as before, I make exactly the same moves. I'm confident. I'm not thinking any more but I got you thinking. You can't think and shoot—nobody can. You're thinking, will he block this one or won't he? I don't even have to try to block it. You'll miss.... Like you take one time back in college, K. C. Jones and I were chasing this guy who had the ball. [Jones was Russell's teammate and close friend on the great San Francisco squad that won 60 straight and two NCAA titles.] We didn't have a chance to catch this guy, but we're chasing him. So K.C. yells over at me, 'I got him!' And I yell back, 'No, I got him!' And the next few steps I take, I hit the floor real hard so it sounds like I'm a lot closer than I really am. We had that guy. We had him thinking. Instead of going in for an easy layup, he tried to get off the shot and get out of our way at the same time. He missed.... Here's something K.C. did to me one day. We're scrimmaging and he's on one team and I'm on the other. I'm bringing the ball up court and he's with me all the way. But I was sure I had him. I looked over at him and I could see he felt I had him too. Then all of a sudden K.C. starts improvising. He starts jumping around and moving one way and another—things I never saw him do before. Now I'm worried. I'm thinking, what's he gonna do next? You know what happened? I got all tangled up and fell down. That's right—one minute I'm sailing along, confident, and the next minute I'm sprawled all over the floor and K.C.'s taken the ball away from me and dribbles down for an easy layup."
Russell's preoccupation with the psychological aspects of basketball brings him to fresh insights not only of his own play but the failings and potentialities of others. For example, most players will talk about Bob Cousy's spectacular techniques, his peripheral vision and phenomenal reflexes when they try to explain his greatness. Not Russell: "You know why he's the greatest? Two reasons. First is his imagination. No matter what the situation is, he'll think of something new to try. He'll try anything. And he'll make it work for the second reason. His confidence. He knows it's going to work.... Some sportswriters say it must be tough to play with Cousy—he does all those wild things, surprises you, fools you and all that jazz. I'll tell you—he's the easiest to play with. You know why? When he passes you the ball, there's always something you can do with it, that's why. Some guys, they pass you the ball and there's nothing you can do with it except pass it back or eat it if you're hungry. When Cousy gives it to you, there's a reason."