What do you remember your father telling you, Bill?
"Accept responsibility for your actions....Honor thy father and mother.... If they give you $10 for a day's work, you give them $12 worth in return."
Even more clearly, Russell recalls the gritty creed his mother gave him when he was a little boy growing up in segregation and the Depression in West Monroe, La. Katie said, "William, you are going to meet people who just don't like you. On sight. And there's nothing you can do about it, so don't worry. Just be yourself. You're no better than anyone else, but no one's better than you."
One time, when he was nine, William—for that is what he was called till basketball made him just plain Bill—came home to the family's little shotgun shack after being slapped by a boy in a gang. Katie dragged him out to find the gang. She made her son fight every boy, one by one. "The fact is, I had to fight back," Bill says. "It wasn't important whether I won or lost."
When he and I visited his father, Charlie said this about Katie: "She was handsome and sweet, and she loved me, and she showed it by giving me children." Bill was very touched by that, subdued. Then Charlie smiled and added, "She played some basketball too—the bloomer girls."
Bill shot to his feet, screaming, "Daddy, I never knew that!" Then there was such vintage Russellian cackling that the old fellow in the next bed woke up, a little discombobulated by all the fuss.
If Katie Russell had any athletic instincts, though, they paled before her passion for education. It was an article of faith with her, a high school dropout, that her two sons—Charlie Jr., the elder by two years, and William—would go to college. Bill has a vivid memory of his mother taking him to get a library card. That was not mundane; that was a signal event. And this is what he remembers of West Monroe, altogether: "I remember that my mother and father loved me, and we had a good time, but the white people were mean. But I was safe. I was always safe. In all my life, every day, not for one second have I ever thought I could have had better parents."
Then, in 1946, when William was 12, his mother died of kidney failure, with very little warning. Katie Russell was only 32. The last thing she told her husband was, "Make sure to send the boys to college." The last thing she told William was, "Don't be difficult for your father, because he's doing the best he can."
The Russells had moved to Oakland not long before, after Charlie was denied a raise at the mill in West Monroe because he was black. Now the father and his two sons boarded the train with Katie's casket to return to Louisiana to bury her. It was after the funeral that young William heard Katie's sisters arguing about which one of them would take the two motherless boys to raise. That was the custom in these matters. Charlie interrupted. "No," he said, "I won't let you. I'm taking the two boys back with me." Though there was still much protesting from the aunts, that was that.
"I told my two boys they'd lost their best friend," Charlie says, "but we could make it if we tried." The goal remained to get them through college. Charlie Jr. was developing into a pretty good athlete, but his father couldn't spend much time thinking about games. After all, he'd had to quit school to work; unlike Katie, he'd never even been able to play basketball. It certainly never occurred to him that now, for the first time, there were people like Hal Dejulio around, scouting black teenagers, eager to give the best ones a free college education just for playing some ball.