SI Vault
Gilbert Rogin
November 18, 1963
The bearded man laughing at his daughter is Bill Russell, the most remarkable basketball player of our time. Sport, however, is one of his lesser interests. Here are his trenchant, often angry observations on today's Negro-white crisis and his role in it
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November 18, 1963

'we Are Grown Men Playing A Child's Game'

The bearded man laughing at his daughter is Bill Russell, the most remarkable basketball player of our time. Sport, however, is one of his lesser interests. Here are his trenchant, often angry observations on today's Negro-white crisis and his role in it

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"To sum it all up," says Heinsohn, "he's got a hell of a lot of pride. When he's playing his game it makes us almost unbeatable, and the secret to the thing is that he gets himself up so often. He's so nervous before a game he upchucks."

"He wants to be the best in everything he does," says Co-Captain Frank Ramsey. "He hates to lose. As long as the team's winning he's completely happy. As long as he's playing real great ball we're winning. Then he's the life of the party. You hear that laugh 10 miles around. He's only moody with himself."

Although Bill Russell has much to laugh about and does in his high, rackety way ("There are only two things that could make me quit coaching," says Auerbach. "My wife and Russell's laugh"), he is, at intervals, an angry, dissatisfied and aloof man of uncommon principle, and is no less remarkable as a person than he is as an athlete.

Russell's scraggly beard is a telling indication of the man. Not only is Russell nearly 6 feet 10 and black—circumstances, obviously, over which he has no control—but he has deliberately set himself further apart by being one of the few professional athletes to wear a beard. Ask him why he grew it and he will reply in time, if he feels like it: "I've thought about it, and I've thought about it. Why did I wear the beard, why do I? It's part of this thing—I've always fought so hard to be different and I am different without even trying, and maybe it's just my own little revolution. It just isn't done in polite circles, in a sense. But I do think it's part of my personality. When I first joined the Celtics I shaved the beard off. I did it on my own. It was none of their business, and if I had valued their opinion I would have asked them. I made a concession to conformity at that time. Then I grew it back. After we won the first championship I let Heinsohn shave it off, and then I grew it back again. It was a very childish thing, in the sense of defiance. I wear it now to let people know I am an individual. I do think for myself, and I'm very opinionated. Contrary to popular belief, I'm a living, thinking, breathing human being."

They say I owe the public this and I owe the public that. What I owe the public is the best performance I can give, period. If someone asks me for an autograph I think it's a waste, but I sign them occasionally. Sometimes I just feel like being nice, or it gets rid of them. I personally don't care what people think of me. I don't think I think any different than anyone else, but I may act different. One thing I'm not is a liar. It's not a matter of morals—more a matter of ego. I think too much of myself to misrepresent myself. I'll do anything I can for anyone as long as it doesn't hurt me. But I have sympathy for very few people. Basketball—that's all people want to talk to me about. It's a waste, because they have nothing to say. I resent people who talk to you and have nothing to say. So I don't say anything. 'How's the weather up there?' 'How are things on Main Street?' That's where I live. What the heck kind of question is that? "You must be a basketball player, because you're so tall. Just walk up and put it in, eh?' No, I'm not a basketball player. I just kept growing. 'What size bed do you sleep in?' I hate for people to get personal. A big bed. 'How much do you eat?' It's ridiculous. If you mind your own business, life ain't bad. If you do the best you can that's the best you can do.

"We're a bunch of grown men playing a child's game. It's a child's game we've made into a man's game by complicating it. Silly, isn't it? We entertain people for x number of hours during the winter. They may talk about it for a few minutes, maybe an hour; then it's forgotten. Is this a contribution? No. Analyze it—it's a silly game. I'm also a silly man because I enjoy it. I enjoy baseball, too. Perhaps I'm a little dull."

It is not easy for a white man to understand or totally accept the vision of a black man; skin is the hardest boundary. The point is this: Bill Russell, or any other black man like him, does not want the white man's sympathy or, indeed, his friendship. What he wants is recognition and acceptance of himself as an individual, a black individual, who can meet the world on equal terms and fare unequally, according to his merit.

"A few things have happened," Russell says. "I've got three kids now, a certain amount of responsibility to them. I also have a certain amount of responsibility to a lot of other kids. I give most Negroes a certain amount of pride. Here's one of our guys doing all right, they say, the world can't be all bad. That contribution is very shallow. Of course, I'm practical. Where else but in basketball could I command this salary? [It is estimated in excess of $40,000.] Man does what he has to, but the contribution I'd like to make as a person—to my kids and little black kids all over the world—is to make life better, so their ambitions aren't stifled when they face the world, to give them the opportunity to do what they're most skilled at. I could have a burning ambition to give my kids a million dollars. If I gave them that alone, I'd be giving them nothing."

The most any kid can ask for," says Russell, "is to succeed or fail on his merits. Success and failure are relative. Everyone doesn't have presidential abilities and everyone can't be an All-America. It doesn't necessarily mean you're a failure. My father's a foundry worker. This doesn't necessarily mean he's a failure—because another person's father is a lawyer. Society needs both. Some people are going to be laborers, but why say a man has to be a laborer because he's black? One right we never had in this country—we never had the right to be a failure or an individual. Why if one black man fails should all black men fail? That's what the struggle is about; whether it's through love, as with Martin Luther King, or through pride, as with the N.A.A.C.P., or through hate, as with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad.

"What does the American Negro want? the editorials ask. I find this very stupid. We're all products of our society, and the acceptable standards are the same. We want the same things. When they write about Birmingham, the papers refer to 'outsiders' and 'racial agitators.' To the black people of the U.S. there is no such thing as an outsider. There's been too much play on words in this country. Negroes have to earn their rights, they say. My oldest son, Buddha [ William Felton Russell Jr.], was born on November 2, 1957. Suppose 50 kids were born around Boston that day. Why does my son have to earn any more than any of those 50 kids? I was born on February 12, 1934. Why do I have to earn more than anyone else?

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