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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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Jake took that in. "Of the white men too?"

"The white men too."

Jake just shook his head. After the game he went into the decrepit locker room, which had only one shower for the whole team. The Celtics were washing up in pairs, and when Jake arrived, Sam Jones and John Havlicek were in the shower, passing the one bar of soap back and forth—first the naked black man, then the naked white man stepping under the water spray. Jake watched, agape. Finally he said, "I never thought I'd see anything like that."

Of course, it was hardly a straight line upward to brotherhood. Nor was Bill Russell afraid to point that out to America; he could be unforgiving and sometimes angry, which meant he was called arrogant by those who didn't care for his kind. Russell invested in a rubber plantation in Liberia, and at a time when African-Americans were known as Negroes, and the word black was an insult, Russell started calling himself black. In the civil rights movement he became a bold, significant figure far beyond the parquet.

Thompson says, "It took a long time for me to be able to accept him as a person, as another guy, because I admired and respected him so. Russell made me feel safe. It was not that he was going to save me if anybody threatened me. Somehow I knew it was going to be all right so long as I was with him. I was going to be safe."

Often, edgy whites misunderstood him, though. Once a magazine quoted him as saying, "I hate all white people." Russell walked into the cramped old Celtics locker room, where equality reigned: Every player had one stool and two nails. Frank Ramsey glanced up from the magazine. "Hey, Russell, I'm white," he said. "You hate me?"

The two teammates looked into each other's eyes. "I was misquoted, Frank," was all Russell said. That was the end of it; he and Ramsey remained as close as ever. A few years earlier, too, there had been a big brouhaha in Kentucky, Ramsey's home state. Russell and other black Celtics had pulled out of an exhibition game there because the hotels were segregated. There was a lot of talk that Russell should not have embarrassed Ramsey that way. None of the talk came from Ramsey, though. Then, in 1966, when Russell succeeded Auerbach and became the first black coach (while continuing to play), he accepted the job only after trying to persuade Ramsey to return to basketball, from which he had retired in 1964, and coach the Celtics. Russell thought that would be better for the team than for him to make history.

The Celtics really did get along the way teams are supposed to in sports mythology. Russell threw Christmas parties for his teammates and their families. In 1962 he took the astonished rookie Havlicek around town to get a good price on a stereo. "All of us were strangers in a place far from home," Russell says. "But we made it into a unique situation. Cousy started it. He was absolutely sincere about being a good teammate."

Still, it was different away from the warm cocoon of the Celtics. One night in 1971 the team assembled in the Boston suburb of Reading, where Russell lived, to be with him as the town proudly honored their captain. It was the first time Heinsohn ever saw Russell cry, he was so happy. A few months later some people broke into Russell's house, rampaged, smashed his trophies, defecated in his bed and spread the excrement over his walls. They didn't want any black man in their town. But in the locker room Russell never talked about the terrible things that happened to him so close to the Celtics' city. "He was too proud to let people know," Heinsohn says.

Cousy still feels guilty. "I wish I'd done more to support Russ," he says. "We were so close, as teammates, but we all should have been more aware of his anger." Cousy draws a deep sigh. "But you know jocks—all into the macho thing. Always afraid to let the conversation be anything more than superficial. We mature so much later than anybody else."

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