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Sportsman of the Year BILL RUSSELL
George Plimpton
December 23, 1968
The year was crammed with excellence. In one two-week period Arthur Ashe won the U.S. Nationals at Brookline, went to Forest Hills and became the first amateur to win a major international open tennis championship. Jean-Claude Killy's triple Olympic triumph brought a fresh, engaging personality to world attention. O.J. Simpson demonstrated that if he wasn't the best running back in college football history, he was good enough to make that proposition grounds for a valid debate. Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, Bob Beamon and Al Oerter, Lee Trevino and Kip Keino, Debbie Meyer, Peggy Fleming, Dan Gurney, Mickey Lolich, Earl Morrall, Gordie Howe—the honors list for achievement in sport in 1968 is long and distinguished, a fact that adds luster to this choice of Sportsman of the Year. The career of Bill Russell (see cover) is astonishing for its consistent brilliance. Still, in 1968, he brought to it a new dimension; as coach as well as star player of the Celtics—leading and doing—he drove his group of veterans to Boston's 10th world championship since he joined the team 12 years ago. The photographs at left are highlights of the playoffs for the title between Boston and Los Angeles. At a time when the host of superb Negro athletes commands esteem for performance, Russell has proved his ability to lead athletes of both races—and leadership has been an area of sport inaccessible to black men. What follows is the narrative of a day recently spent with Russell, interspersed with comments on the man by those who know him best, his fellow Celtics.
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December 23, 1968

Sportsman Of The Year Bill Russell

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"You play pool?" Mays asks. "You coming out to the house when you're on the Coast? To play pool?" He is very enthusiastic.

"Oh-oh," Russell says. "He's beginning to reel me in."

"Oh man," says Mays. "Don't you gamble none?"

"Always with the wrong person. You ever play golf with Jimmy Brown? One time we're playing and Brown says, 'Hey, I can beat you using one club.' 'What club?' I ask him. Well, that was a mistake. He was reeling me in right there. 'A four-wood,' he says. I ask him, 'You mean you chip and putt and everything with a four-wood?' 'Yes,' he says. He's reeling me in good. Well, I think about it and finally I say O.K. So I get a four on the first hole and so does he. I get a five on the next; so does he. Then I get a three and he does too. Well, I'm one over par after five holes, playing way over my head, and he's fooling around with that four-wood and he's dead even with me. Well, I can't play up to that cat, so he wins the last four holes and $80."

Mays says he's pleased to know about that, just in case he runs into Jimmy Brown on a golf course; and in the meantime he's ready to take on Russell with just a putter.

Russell looks around the room solemnly. "A den of thieves," he says, and he rocks back and forth with laughter. He stands up. He says goodby to Mays. He will see him on the Coast. Maybe he will play pool. He is sorry to leave but he has a game the next night.

In the car on the way back someone asks, "Hey, did you really hit the right-field fence at Dodger Stadium?"

Russell laughs. He says, "Maybe not so far as that. But we can't let Willie know."

JOE DE LAURI, the Celtic trainer: He's friendly and easy with those he likes. But the big concern he has is for the Celtics. Nothing else really matters. That's why he seems so cold often to the press and the fans. They're not Celtics. After we won the championship last year he kicked everyone who wasn't a Celtic out of the dressing room—press, photographers, hangers-on. and also this poor guy who was tending a television camera in the locker room who said he had to have permission to leave it untended, pleading to stay, said he was going to lose his job, and it took three or four minutes to get him out. The press was pounding on the door, furious about deadlines and all, and Russell turned around and looked at us and he asked Howell to lead the team in prayer. He knew Bailey was a religious man—it was also his first year on a championship team—and he knew Bailey would appreciate it. Russell's not a religious man himself. Sam Jones said, "You pray?" And Russell said, "Yeah, Sam."

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