He's a fantastic athlete. He could have been the decathlon champion. He could
broad-jump 24 feet. He did the hurdles in 13.4. I've seen him in plays on a
basketball court when he not only blocks a shot but controls the ball and feeds
it to his forwards, and then he's up at the other end of the court trailing the
fast break and if there's a rebound there he is, ready for it. He just might be
the fastest man on the Celtics. Last year in the playoffs Archie Clark of the
Lakers stole the ball three times and he must have had five steps on Russell
and a free lane to the basket. Each time Russell caught him and blocked the
shot. Think of that. Think of being on the other team. There's got to be a
funny feeling, going for the basket when Russell's around.
There is an
invitation to dinner at a friend's house. Willie Mays is going to be there. In
the garage Russell gazes longingly at his Lamborghini sports car, but it is a
two-seater and there are too many people to transport. On the way to dinner
Russell talks about the defensive skills that are his specialty. "Much of
defending is instinctive," he says. "He-is-going-to-shoot, so obviously
I-must-do-this. But it's also possible to analyze your reactions in certain
situations so you can learn to control what you do—so that it's not an accident
anymore. Of course, there are some tricks. If a game is close, two minutes to
go, your man's probably going to take his favorite shot. So you can compensate.
And then again there's luck. Now, naturally," he adds, beginning his big
rackety laugh, "if I was 22 my man wouldn't be having any luck at
to go—besides the luck?" someone in the car asks.
"You begin to
lose the competitive edge. That's the only department—and it's an important
one—where I feel any loss. My timing's as good as it ever was. But night after
night, test after test, they come to challenge me—it's not unlike being a
gunfighter. For the last four or five years I've had this picture of myself as
the gunfighter—the guys coming up who say they saw me when they were in the
fourth grade and they've watched every move, and practiced them, and how they
want to try me. And they keep coming and sometimes I wonder if I still have to
JOHN HAVLICEK: He
used to throw up all the time before a game, or at halftime—a tremendous sound,
almost as loud as his laugh. He doesn't do it much now, except when it's an
important game or an important challenge for him—someone like Chamberlain, or
someone coming up that everyone's touting. It's a welcome sound, too, because
it means he's keyed up for the game, and around the locker room we grin and
say, "Man, we're going to be all right tonight."
RED AUERBACH: The
first time I saw him play after we landed him for the Celtics was with the 1956
Olympic team against an all-star team in College Park, Md. He was horrible. He
was awful. I thought, God, I've traded Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan for this
guy! I sat there with my head in my hands. He came over to see me after the
game. He said he wanted to apologize—he'd never played like that. I looked at
him and said I hoped he was right because if his play that night was any
indication of his ability, then I was a dead pigeon. His first game as a pro
wasn't much, either. Harry Gallatin of the Knicks just ate him up.
Russell—well, he didn't seem to want to hit any one. Timid. He'd just been
married, and that doesn't do a guy any good. At least on a basketball court. So
the next time we played the Knicks I thought I'd play Russell at corner and let
Arnie Risen play center against Gallatin. Russell came to me and said he wanted
to try again against Gallatin. Well, what a job he did on Gallatin—maybe the
guy got one shot on him, maybe two. Russell destroyed him. That's a word you
can use about him—he "destroyed" players. You take Neil Johnston—a good
set shot and a great sweeping hook shot, a big long-armed guy who played for
Philly and was the leading scorer in the NBA the year before. Russell destroyed
him. He destroyed him psychologically as well, so that he practically ran him
out of organized basketball. He blocked so many shots that Johnston began
throwing his hook farther and farther from the basket. It was ludicrous, and
the guys along the bench began to laugh, maybe in relief that they didn't have
to worry about such a guy themselves.
Willie Mays has
already arrived at the dinner party, looking chilly in a lightweight gray suit.
It is a cold autumn day outside. He brightens at Russell's entrance. He stands
in front of the fire, bouncing up and down on his toes, and in reply to how he
feels and what he thinks about next season he announces he is only going to
play 100 baseball games; the schedule is just too exhausting; in fact, maybe
he'll limit himself to 80. "Well, 80, yes I should think so," says
Russell. "Baseball...really damn brutal. Think of it. You got to get to the
ball park at 4 o'clock for a night game. You sit around and shoot some pool.
Then you eat a sandwich maybe, and you drink some pop. Then you sit around and
do a lot of cussing at each other. Then you pull yourselves together and it's
time for some more pool. After a while you get dressed. Out on the field you
lounge around the batting cage. Then you go back and lie down and read the
day's lineup. Finally you go back out and the game begins. The only people who
do anything are the pitchers and catchers. What does everyone else do? Well,
they lean forward on their toes and they pound their fists into their gloves!
[Russell stands and pounds his fists together.] Sometimes they spit on the
ground. Just for a change. When the pitcher gets three men out, everybody walks
into the dugout where they hold their chins in their hands. [He holds his chin
in his hand.] And what then? They stare out at the field until it's time to go
out and start pounding that glove again. It's really brutal."
on," says Mays, bouncing on his toes.
SANDERS: He's a good needler. When I first came to the Celtics I decided we
weren't going to get along. In training camp I was going to be mean and hard
and cold and I wasn't going to have anything to do with anyone—just concentrate
on making the team. Well, that lasted two or three seconds. Russell let loose
with that big laugh in this restaurant, and I decided that anyone with that
much laughter wasn't anyone to be mean and hard and cold around. So I went over
and asked if I could tag along. In his inevitable fashion he turned on me and
said no, hell no, certainly not. Well, I thought, I've done it now, I've shown
myself up as weak, just when I was going to be mean and hard and cold. I'd
better change back fast. But then, just as I was turning away and getting all
set to be aloof again, why he said he was only kidding. Well, that's like him.
He enjoys surprising people to keep them just a bit off balance. When I do
something wrong he says, "You just don't like Boston, do you?"
Mays asks Russell
about coaching basketball. "It doesn't seem to me to be all that
complicated," Russell says. "I've listened to coaches for so many
years. Players react to different stimuli. Some guys you berate; some you
praise. If you happen to have a team of guys who need to be yelled at, well,
you yell at them and you hope that your manner's convincing."