The Radar detector on the Lexus beeped. Russell slowed down. A bit. We had driven through Washington and most of Oregon, too. A billboard advertised the Seven Feathers Casino. Ah, fin de siècle America: casinos, cable, cosmetic surgery and scores from around the leagues. Russell, who just turned 65, is fairly pragmatic about the new ways of the world. He never put on any airs—witness that amazing laugh of his, which is the loud leitmotif of his life. "I try not to stifle anything," he says. "It isn't just my laugh. If I have to sneeze, I just let it go. You understand what I mean?"
He is also helped by the fact that even as a young man, he looked venerable. Other players would dart onto the court, all snappy and coltish. Number 6 would stalk out hunched over, stroking that dagger of a goatee, and stand there dark and grim. We always talk about teams "executing." All right, then: Russell appeared very much an executioner.
Jerry West, who was denied about a half-dozen championships strictly because of Russell, remembers. "When the national anthem was played, I always found my eyes going to Bill. He did that just right, stand there for the anthem. He was a statue, but there was a grace to him. Even just standing still: grace."
Whereas Russell is disappointed by much that he sees on the court today, he does not lambaste the players. He is just as prone to blame the coaches for taking so much of the spontaneity out of basketball. "The coaches dumb players down now," he says, clearly irritated. "They're stifling innovation. They're not letting them play outside the system." Pretty soon, it seems, the Celtics' fast break, which was the most gloriously coordinated rapid action in sport, will be nothing more than athletic nostalgia, like the dropkick.
And the players? Well, it's not just them. "All the kids in this generation—they really don't have a clue," Russell says. "They don't know, but they really don't care. A lot of my peers are annoyed that the players accepted a salary cap. I'm not. I know there's not supposed to be a limit on what you can make in America, but then, the NBA may also be the only place where there's a high roof for a minimum. When I speak to the players, I just say they have a responsibility to be caretakers. When you leave, there should be no less for those who follow you than there was when you arrived."
We started up Mount Ashland, whose other side goes down into California. Russell said, "Of course, a lot of my peers are also annoyed with all this money these kids are making. Me? I love it when I see a guy get a hundred million, because that says something good about what I did. You understand what I mean?"
This is, however, not to say that some of the guys making a hundred million—or getting by on only 50 or 60—have a clue about what Bill Russell did. It took years of hectoring by some of his friends to persuade Russell to step out of the safe shadows, to display himself again. His legacy was fading. John Thompson fairly bellows, "Nobody cares when some turkey like me won't give interviews. But Bill Russell! I say, Bill: You owe it to the people you love not to take this to your grave. I want my grandchildren to hear you talk about all you were."
So, while sometimes it mortifies Russell that he is, like everybody else, marketing himself—"I can't believe I'm doing all the things I swore I'd never do," he moans—there is the reasonable argument that truth nowadays must be packaged; otherwise, only the hype will survive as history. So Russell is planning a speaking tour and an HBO documentary about his life, and Karen is working on a book about motivation with her father, and a huge charitable evening to honor Russell is scheduled at the FleetCenter in Boston on May 26, when his number 6 jersey will be ceremonially re-retired. Russell is even selling about 500 autographs a year, and when we went to ship some signed basketballs to a sports collectibles store, I felt rather as if I had gone over to Handgun Control and mailed out some Saturday Night Specials.
So, O.K., it's the millennium, it's a different world. But we're not that far removed from the old one. Look at Bill Russell in 1999. His grandfather Jake was of the family's first generation born free on this continent. When this fading century began, Jake Russell was trying to scratch out a living with a mule. The Klan went after him because even though he couldn't read or write a lick, he led a campaign to raise money among the poor blacks around West Monroe to build a schoolhouse and pay a teacher to educate their children at a time when the state wouldn't have any truck with that.
At the other end of Jake's life, in 1969, he went over to Shreveport, La., to see the Celtics play an exhibition. By then his grandson had become the first African-American coach in a major professional sport. Jake sat with his son, Charlie, watching Bill closely during timeouts. He wasn't quite sure what he was seeing; Celtics huddles could be terribly democratic back then. It was before teams had a lot of assistants with clipboards. Skeptically Jake asked his son, "He's the boss?" Charlie nodded.