You wonder why the rapid-fire film montages of the '60s almost never show Bill Russell. The music of the Beatles always is played in the background ("You say you want a rev-o-loo-tion...."), and the fire hoses in Selma merge into the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. and then into psychedelic distortions and then into Hank Aaron at bat or Joe Namath on the run and then into the war in Vietnam and Muhammad Ali at the draft board...but never does the picture of Russell grace the screen. Why? No athlete has dominated any team sport for any decade the way Russell dominated pro basketball in the '60s.
You look back at Russell's success—his team, the Boston Celtics, won the NBA title in nine of the 10 years of the '60s and in 11 of the 13 years he played center—and you think that his place in history is assured. He was the MVP five times. He was the first black coach of a major U.S. professional team, winning the NBA title in two of his three seasons as the Celtic player-coach. He was an innovator, changing his sport by virtually inventing the blocked shot and tipping the game's balance from offensive flash to defensive tenacity. What more did he have to do?
"Before Russell came along, no one ever had blocked shots in the pros or forced teams out of their offensive patterns," former Celtic coach Red Auerbach once said. "He put a whole new sound in the game, the sound of his footsteps. A guy would be going in all alone for a layup, and he'd hear the sound of those footsteps behind him. After this happened a few times, guys started hearing Russell's footsteps even when he wasn't there."
You wonder if he arrived on the scene too early, before the NBA became "Fan-tas-tic." You wonder if Russell's long battle with Wilt Chamberlain has, with time, been misread: Is it easier now to gasp at the idea of a player scoring 100 points in a single game than at 11 championships in 13 years? Is it easier to look at the other Hall of Famers on the old Celtics and say, "Well, Russell always had a good team around him," than to remember that he was the soul of the team?
You wonder, too—probably wonder the most—about how much Russell's own personality has contributed to his strangely quiet place. He is one of the most cantankerous figures ever to have walked across the American sports page. Few other athletes spoke their minds more often on more controversial subjects. No other athlete did less to curry favor with the fan. From the time he arrived with the Celtics as a 6'9?" rookie in 1956, fresh from two NCAA championships at the University of San Francisco, he was his own man. He romanced no one, danced for no one. He played basketball. Period.
"What I'm resentful of, you know, is when they say you owe the public this and owe the public that," he said in a Saturday Evening Post article in 1964. "You owe the public the same thing it owes you. Nothing.... I'd say I'm like most people in this type of life; I have an enlarged ego. I refuse to misrepresent myself. I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies. I don't think it is incumbent upon me to set a good example for anybody's kids but my own."
He refused to sign autographs. He consistently lacerated the city of Boston and the people who cheered him, citing examples of racism. At a time when the black athlete was quietly pushing back the remaining barriers on the playing fields and the rosters, Russell was loudly calling for faster and broader change. His game was to keep people off-balance. He did this with Chamberlain, greeting his adversary warmly one day, then walking past him silently the next, always leaving Wilt to wonder who this large, bearded guy really was. He did this with the world in general, sometimes laughing with the loudest cackle imaginable, at other times turning distant.
Do the people who write history remember the rebuff better than the rebound? Do they remember his refusal to attend his induction into the Hall of Fame more than the reasons for the induction? Earlier this year, Russell returned to Boston, the city he hated, for one spring weekend to do a job he never would do before. He signed autographs. The price for autographing a piece of paper was $295 and a basketball $495. The local press, of course, did an easy tap dance on his head. You had to laugh. The greatest basketball player of his time—sorry, Wilt—still couldn't care less what people thought.