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The Ring Leader
Frank Deford
May 10, 1999
The greatest team player of all time, Bill Russell was the hub of a Celtics dynasty that ruled its sport as no other team ever has
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May 10, 1999

The Ring Leader

The greatest team player of all time, Bill Russell was the hub of a Celtics dynasty that ruled its sport as no other team ever has

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Russell began to emerge from his most pronounced period of solitude about three years ago. Shortly after arriving in Seattle in 1973, he had gone into a jewelry store, where he hit it off with the saleswoman. Her name is Marilyn Nault. "Let me tell you," she sighs, "working in a jewelry store is the worst place to meet a man, because if one comes in, it's to buy something for another woman." But over the years—skipping through Russell's next, brief marriage, to a former Miss USA—Marilyn and Bill remained friends. Also, she impressed him as a very competitive dominoes player. When Bill's secretary died in 1995, Marilyn volunteered to give him a hand, and all of a sudden, after more than two decades, they realized they were in love. So it was that one day, when Marilyn came over to help Bill with his accounts, she just stayed on with him in the house on the hill under the tail firs.

There is a big grandfather clock in the house that chimes every hour. Like Bill, Marilyn doesn't hear it anymore. She has also learned how to sleep with the TV on, because Bill, a terrible night owl, usually falls asleep with the clicker clasped tightly in his hand. Usually the Golf Channel is on. Imagine waking up to the Golf Channel. Marilyn has also learned to appreciate long car trips. Twice she and Bill have driven across the continent and back. Their lives are quite blissful; he has never seemed to be so at peace. "They're the ultimate '50s couple," Karen reports. "They have nothing but kind things to say about each other, and it's part of their arrangement that at least once a day, he has to make her laugh."

Yet for all the insular contentment Russell has always sought in his life, his play was marked by the most extraordinary intensity. If he threw up before a big game, the Celtics were sure everything would be all right. If he didn't, then Boston's coach, Red Auerbach, would tell Russell to go back to the toilet—order him to throw up. Rookies who saw Russell for the first time in training camp invariably thought he had lost it over the summer, because he would pace himself, even play possum in some exhibitions, to deceive pretenders to his throne. Then, in the first game of the real season, the rookies would be bug-eyed as the genuine article suddenly appeared, aflame with competition. It was as if the full moon had brought out a werewolf.

Cousy says, "The level of intensity among the big guys is different. You put a bunch of huge guys, seminaked, out there before thousands of people, and you expect them to become killers. But it just isn't in their nature. Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] probably had the best skills of all big men, and he played till he was 42. If he'd had Russ's instincts, it's hard to imagine how much better he'd have been. But he'd have burned out long before 42."

Sanders: "There's no reason why some centers today couldn't block shots like Russ did. Only no one has the intestinal fortitude. A center blocks one shot now, the other team grabs the ball and scores, and the center stands there pouting, with that I-can't-do-everything look. Russell would block three, four shots in a row—I mean from different players—and then just glower at us."

Russell: "Once I blocked seven shots in a row. When we finally got the ball, I called timeout and said, 'This s—- has got to stop.' " Some years Russell would be so exhausted after the playoffs that, as he describes it, "I'd literally be tired to my bones. I mean, for four, five weeks, my bones would hurt."

Russell believes that Wilt Chamberlain suffered the worst case of big-man syndrome; he was too nice, scared that he might hurt somebody. The year after Russell retired, in the famous seventh game of the NBA Finals at Madison Square Garden, Willis Reed, the New York Knicks center, limped onto the court against the Los Angeles Lakers, inspiring his team and freezing Chamberlain into a benign perplexity. Russell scowls just thinking about it. "If I'm the one playing Willis when he comes out limping," he snarls, "it only would have emphasized my goal to beat them that much worse." Russell would have called Six—his play—again and again, going mercilessly at the cripple, exploiting Reed without remorse. The Celtics would have won. Which was the point. Always.

"To be the best in the world," Russell says, all but licking his lips. "Not last week. Not next year. But right now You are the best. And it's even more satisfying as a team, because that's more difficult. If I play well, that's one thing. But to make others play better...." He grins, savoring the memory. "You understand what I mean?" Bill often says that, invariably when there is no doubt. It has to do with emphasis more than clarity. In fact, I can sort of visualize him saying that after he blocked a shot. You understand what I mean?

Yes.

It is difficult to comprehend whence came Russell's extraordinary will on the court. Karen recalls only once in her life that her father so much as raised his voice to anyone. "I just never saw the warrior in him," she says. "As a matter of fact, as I got to understand men better, I appreciated all the more how much of a feminine side my father has." Ironically it was Russell's mother, Katie, who appears to have given him his fire, while his father, Charlie, instilled the more reflective component.

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