Since 1943, when I first saw a basketball, I've played approximately 3,000 games, organized and otherwise. I think that's enough.
I'm a pretty direct man. You say something I like, I'll tell you so; you say something I don't like, I'll tell you also. A diplomat I'm not. So I'll tell you right out that there are no secret or hidden or financial or philosophical reasons behind this. I just don't feel like playing anymore. As for coaching—that prime incubator of ulcers—no, thank you. I don't want to coach anymore, either. I never considered myself primarily a coach, anyway. Anytime I was ever around a group of coaches I'd feel nervous—all that nonsense about how to "handle" kids, how to "motivate" them! I was a player. Now I'm not a player or a coach anymore.
If you're really looking for a reason why I feel I've played enough, I'll tell you this. There are professionals and there are mercenaries in sports. The difference between them is that the professional is involved. I was never a mercenary. If I continued to play, I'd become a mercenary because I'm not involved anymore.
I have a year to go on my contract with the Celtics. It's one of the most lucrative in sports, and I was very happy with it. A couple of my friends think I should at least stick out that year because of the money. Believe me, I wouldn't mind having all that money. But I'm not going to play basketball for money. I've been paid to play, of course, but I played for a lot of other reasons, too.
I played because I enjoyed it—but there's more to it than that. I played because I was dedicated to being the best. I was part of a team, and I dedicated myself to making that team the best. To me, one of the most beautiful things to see is a group of men coordinating their efforts toward a common goal—alternately subordinating and asserting themselves to achieve real teamwork in action. I tried to do that—we all tried to do that—on the Celtics. I think we succeeded. Often, in my mind's eye, I stood off and watched that effort. I found it beautiful to watch. It's just as beautiful to watch in things other than sports.
Being part of that effort on the Celtics was very important to me. It helped me develop and grow, and I think it has helped prepare me for something other than playing basketball. But so far as the game is concerned, I've lost my competitive urges. If I went out to play now, the other guys would know I didn't really care. That's no way to play—it's no way to do anything.
All during this past season I had the eerie feeling that I'd been through this before. Every play, every situation. Setting a screen, missing a shot—I'd seen or done it all before. Everything had become repetition. This is not the attitude to bring to still another season.
Basketball is the most demanding sport we've invented. It demands speed and stamina and a lot of other physical and mental qualities. It also demands tolerance of pain. Hurting is part of professional basketball. You get banged around, you lose your teeth, you twist muscles, you break bones. I'm not crying about this, just stating facts. Some people have said I would stop playing one day because my knees hurt. Well, they hurt. They've been hurting for 10 years, and my ankle has been hurting ever since I broke it in 1958. But I'll tell you this—the rest of the guys in the NBA would laugh if I said I was leaving because my knees hurt. I don't know a player in the league who doesn't hurt somewhere practically the whole long season. Earl Monroe is only 24 and his knees are as bad as mine. What about Elgin Baylor? Or Nate Thurmond? I could go on and on. Hurting is as much a part of the game as shooting free throws. I'm not leaving because I hurt.
I'm not mad at anybody, either. I'm not mad at any of the players, and I'm not mad at Jack Kent Cooke and his balloons. I'm not even mad at Mendy Rudolph. I'm not trying to get even with somebody, or anything like that. Sure, there are things about the game I don't like, but it would be a lot easier to do something about them—which I've tried—if I went on playing. I'm not leaving because I'm angry.
You might think that it's very nice for me to be leaving a winner. Truthfully, that had nothing to do with my decision. Still, winning the championship this year was one of the most rewarding victories of my career, especially because we weren't expected to win. ( SPORTS ILLUSTRATED wasn't the only one to give up on the Celtics this year—hah!) And it's not that I think this year's team was our best, either. As a matter of fact, I think our 1963-64 team was the best [Sanders, K. C. Jones, Heinsohn, Ramsey, Sam Jones, Havlicek, Russell]. It was easily the best defensive team we ever had—maybe that's why it's my favorite—and maybe the best of all time. I rate it best despite the fact that it was only good offensively, not great. Maybe that's the key to it. We knew our offensive shortcomings and we worked hard to overcome them.