Indisputably, his race diminished Russell in the eyes of many biased observers, but, withal, it was the rare fair-minded expert who could comprehend the brilliance of this original force. Indeed, even as Russell won every year in the NBA, the fact that Chamberlain averaged skyrocket numbers was more beguiling to the unsophisticated. Meanwhile, in Boston, the stylish—and Caucasian—Cousy continued to hold the greater affection. Auerbach recalls one time when Cousy was injured but the Celtics swept a five-game road trip, with "Russ blocking a million shots." When the team returned home, it was greeted by a headline that made no reference to the victory streak, asking only, WILL COUSY PLAY TONIGHT? "This coulda killed my team," Auerbach says. He felt obliged to order the exhausted players to go directly from the airport to the Garden, there to air the matter as a team.
Russell was a great admirer of Cousy, though, and the two led together. If they called a team meeting, they'd start off by soliciting opinions on how they—Cousy and Russell—were lacking. After that, who could bitch about anybody else? Jones cannot recall a single instance, either in college or in the NBA, when Russell "jumped on anyone's butt. But Bill definitely had his Machiavellian side. Anybody who didn't fit in, he'd just dismiss him."
Russell's simple key to a successful team was to encourage each player to do what he did best. "Remember," he says, "each of us has a finite amount of energy, and things you do well don't require as much. Things you don't do well take more concentration. And if you're fatigued by that, then the things you do best are going to be affected." The selfishness of successful team play—"I was very selfish," he declares—sounds paradoxical, but a team profits if each player revels in his strength. Still, Russell points out, there is a fine line between idealistic shared greed and typical self-gratification. "You must let your energy flow to the team," he says.
And sometimes, of course, you simply must sacrifice. For instance, one of the hardest things Russell had to learn to accept was that if he filled one lane on a fast break and Heinsohn was on the other flank, Cousy would give Heinsohn the ball—and the basket. Every time. "He simply had so much confidence in Heinie," Russell says. "So I had to discipline myself to run that break all-out, even if I knew I wasn't going to get the ball."
Above all, though, the key to Russell's success was that his greatest individual talent was the one that most benefited the team. It was not only that he blocked shots; Auerbach estimates that 80% of the time Russell could also direct the blocked ball into Celtics hands, usually fast-break bound. Moreover—and here is why statistical analyses of Russell's play are meaningless—the mere threat of a Russell block made opponents think twice about shooting, while the other Celtics could gamble aggressively on defense, knowing that number 6 would save them. "Other teams, all you hear is 'Switch!' 'Pick!' 'Help!' " Thompson says. "On the Celtics you'd only hear one word: 'Russ!' "
Although Russell made his team nearly invincible, the singular image that survives is of that one extraordinary athlete. That's the trouble with old sportswriters: They remember the beauty they saw far better than people today can visualize it from reading statistics. "It wasn't just that Bill was the whole package—and he was," West says, "but there was such presence he brought to the game."
By himself, in fact, Russell was hugely responsible for changing the way the public thought about big men in basketball. Before Russell, the giants were often dismissed as gawky goons or, like Chamberlain, bully-boy Goliaths. But Russell was as comfortable in his shape as he was in his skin, and it showed. "I am tall," he says. "O.K.? And if that's the only reason I can play, that's all right too. Don't deny your biggest asset. I'm a tall black guy. O.K.? No apologies, no bragging." In a game that was much more choreographed than the one today, no one could fail to see the elegance of Russell—this great winged bird swooping about, long angles that magically curved, rising high before your eyes. In fact, Russell saw himself as an artist, his play as a work of art. "If you can take something to levels that very few other people can reach," he says without vanity, "then what you're doing becomes art."
Unashamed, he sought to play the perfect game. "Certain standards I set for that," he says. "First, of course, we had to win. I had to get at least 25 rebounds, eight assists and eight blocks. I had to make 60% of my shots, and I had to run all my plays perfectly, setting picks and filling the lanes. Also, I had to say all the right things to my teammates—and to my opponents." Ironically, the closest he ever came to achieving that ideal was one night when he lived up to all his standards except the most obvious one: He did not make a single basket in 11 attempts.
Never mind. There were many discrete exquisite moments that made up for never quite attaining that comprehensive dream. "Sometimes," Russell told me in the car, breaking into a smile at the recollection, "sometimes if I could do something exactly the way I wanted, it was such an exhilarating feeling that I wanted to scream."
That memory was so joyous, in fact, that he missed the turn to the airport. Yes, 30 years later, he was driving me to an airport again. We had seen his father that morning, so our mission was accomplished. And now Karen was coming up to visit Charlie, so three generations of Russells would be together, Bill in the middle.