On the other hand, as upside-down as this may sound, Russell believes he can share more by not giving autographs, because instead of an impersonal scribbled signature, a civil two-way conversation may ensue. Gently: "I'm sorry, I don't give autographs."
"No, won't is personal. I don't. But thank you for asking." And then, if he senses a polite reaction, he might say, "Would you like to shake hands with me?" And maybe chat.
Utterly dogmatic, Russell wouldn't bend even to give his Celtics teammates autographs. One time this precipitated an ugly quarrel with Sanders, who wanted a simple keepsake: the signature of every Celtic he'd played with. "You, Satch, of all people, know how I feel," Russell snapped.
"Dammit, I'm your teammate, Russ."
Nevertheless, when the shouting was over, Russell still wouldn't sign. Thompson, who was Russell's backup on the Celtics for two years, is sure that Russell never took pleasure from these sorts of incidents. "No, it bothered him," Thompson says. "But doing it his way, on his own terms, was more important to him. And that's Bill. Even if it hurt him, he was going to remain consistent."
Russell speaks, often, in aphorisms that reflect his attitudes. "It is better to understand than to be understood," he told his daughter. "A groove can become a rut," he advised his teammates. And perhaps the one that goes most to his own heart: "You should live a life with as few negatives as possible—without acquiescing."
So, alone, unbothered, one of the happiest times Russell ever had was driving around the West on a motorcycle in the '70s. When he takes a long automobile trip by himself these days, he listens to National Public Radio, CDs and tapes he has recorded to suit his own eclectic taste. On one tape, for example, are Stevie Wonder and Burl Ives. On another: Willie Nelson and Aretha Franklin. But also, always, Russell sets aside two hours to drive in complete silence, meditating. He has never forgotten what Huey Newton, the Black Panther, once told him: that the five years he spent in solitary confinement were, in fact, liberating.
Russell returned twice to the NBA after he retired as the Celtics' player-coach following the 1968-69 season. As coach and general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics from 1973 to '77, he built the team that would win the championship two years after he left. A brief tenure with the Sacramento Kings during the '87-88 season was, however, disastrous and unhappy. On the night he was fired, Russell cleaned out his office; returned to his Sacramento house, which was contiguous to a golf course; and stayed there, peacefully by himself, for weeks, venturing out only for provisions and golf. He didn't read the newspapers or watch television news. "To this day, I don't know what they said about me," he says. He put his house on the market immediately, and only when it sold, three weeks later, did he return to Seattle, where for 26 years he has lived in the same house on Mercer Island, one tucked away into a sylvan hillside, peeking down at Lake Washington.
Divorced in 1973, Russell lived as a single parent with Karen for several years, until she left for Georgetown in 1980 and then Harvard Law. Alone after that, Russell says, there were times when he would hole up and practice his household "migratory habits." That is, he would stock the kitchen, turn on the burglar alarm, turn off the phone and, for the next week, migrate about the house, going from one couch to another, reading voraciously and watching TV, ideally Jeopardy! or Star Trek—just bivouacked there, the tallest of all the Trekkies, sleeping on various sofas. He was quite content. The finest team player ever is by nature a loner who, by his own lights, achieved such group success because of his abject selfishness. You will never begin to understand Bill Russell until you appreciate that he is, at once, consistent and contradictory.