So they just had to settle for winning.
Russell Drove the Lexus into Oakland. When he was a little boy, after rural Dixie, his big new California hometown seemed such a wondrously exciting place. But Oakland wasn't Valhalla. "I couldn't even go downtown," he says. "The cops would chase the black kids away. And you still have those soldiers in blue in the streets. In terms of economics, things are certainly better in America today. But the criminal justice system hasn't improved."
Still, even if the police ran young William out of stylish Oakland, he grew up in contentment. Even after Katie's death, the Russells enjoyed the sort of family embrace that is denied so many black boys today. Charlie Jr. would graduate from college and become a social worker and a playwright. William, for his part, was a bookworm. For someone who ended up 6'10", he grew very late and wasn't much noticed on the basketball court. But then, he also wasn't much good. Frank Robinson, the great baseball player, was on the McClymonds High basketball team with Russell, and he says, "He couldn't even put the ball in the basket when he dunked." Russell was scheduled to graduate in January 1951, whereupon it was his intention to get a job in the shipyards and save up to go to college part time.
This is surely what would have happened, too, except that Hal Dejulio, who had played at the University of San Francisco and occasionally steered young players toward the school, went to an Oakland High-McClymonds game one day to help the Oakland coach. USF was a struggling urban Catholic college that didn't even have a gymnasium; the team had to settle for leftovers and overlooks. As a consequence, Dejulio noticed McClymonds' center, the unknown string bean with the incredibly long arms, who had a rare good game that day. A week later Dejulio showed up unannounced at the Russells' house and offered William a scholarship to San Francisco. Only then did he tell Dons coach Phil Woolpert about his find. Woolpert was skeptical but agreed to take William on.
It was that close to there never being a Bill Russell. "It gives me chills," Karen says.
Even as Russell won his first NCAA tide, in 1955, his coach—like most everybody else—couldn't yet fathom that Russell was this genius who had, in effect, created a whole new game of basketball. For instance, Woolpert concurred with the conventional wisdom that to play defense you must not leave your feet, "and here I was airborne most of the time," Russell recalls. Although the Dons' victories piled up, Woolpert kept telling Russell he was "fundamentally unsound." He would say, "You can't do that." Russell would respond, "But I just did."
Nevertheless Russell liked Woolpert—"a fine and decent man," he calls the coach—who was being excoriated for starting three black players: Russell, K.C. Jones and Hal Perry. Woolpert was flooded with hate mail, and rival coaches snidely called him Saperstein, after Abe, the coach of the Harlem Globetrotters. Although the NCAA championship won by the 1965-66 Texas Western team, with five black starters, has over time been painted as a watershed event, the fact is that Russell was as much pioneer as avatar. The African-American domination of basketball traces to two teams, his teams: USF in college, Boston in the pros. Texas Western was but the end product of what Russell inspired—and what he had suffered through—a decade earlier.
K.C. Jones remembers an occasion in Oklahoma City, where USF was practicing, when local citizens threw coins at the players as if they were clowns in the circus. Inside, Jones raged. But Russell, smiling sardonically, picked up the change and handed it to Woolpert. "Here, Coach, hold this for me," was all he said.
"Then," Jones says, "he took it out on the opposition."
"I decided in college to win," Russell says matter-of-factly. "Then it's a historical fact, and nobody can take it away from me. You understand what I mean?"