Monday, August 31, 2009

Bill Russell: Three Stories

Bill Russell is now in his early seventies. One of his claims to fame is that during his basketball career, his teams won two NCAA championships, a gold medal in Melbourne, and in his long career with the Boston Celtics, his teams won 11 championships. He was a superlative athlete. If you take the time to read his books, you’ll find that he is a great storyteller.

In the early part of his career, America, south of the Mason-Dixon line was almost entirely Jim Crow. He once drove his family from Boston to Monroe, Louisiana to visit his grandfather. Once they got south of Washington D.C., he and his children had to sleep in the car. On one occasion, a hotel worker informed Russell that he could stay in the hotel with his teammates, but he wanted one favor. When Russell asked what that was, the worker told the 6’10” black man, “Try to be inconspicuous.”

In 1966, Bill Russell because the first black head coach in the NBA and the Celtics played in an exhibition game close to his hometown. Russell’s grandfather Charlie Russell (Mr. Charlie) attended the game with Bill’s father. Mr. Charlie Russell’s parents had been slaves. Before the game, Bill Russell’s father tried at some length to Mr. Charlie how the game worked and asked if he had any questions. Mr. Charlie was silent for a moment, then asked, “Do them white boys really have to do what William tells them?” Later that evening, Russell’s father and grandfather visited the Celtic locker room. Suddenly, Mr. Charlie started to cry. He’d been standing by the shower and noticed that two of ill’s teammates, Sam Jones (a black man) and John Havlicek (a white man) had been showering together like it was nothing. Mr. Charlie said, “I never thought I’d see the day when water would flow off a black man onto a white man and off a white man onto a black man.”

At the end of his career, Russell decided he wanted to open a restaurant in Boston. The first problem he encountered was that the Boston police let it be known that they expected free meals in return for not ticketing his patrons’ cars. This proposition offended Russell’s sense of integrity and he refused. His patrons received lots of tickets, but he stayed in business. Shortly thereafter, Russell discovered that, although he had plenty of patrons, he was not making any money because his employees were robbing him blind. One day, one of Boston’s wise guys (WG) approached him with a proposal to solve his employee theft problem. The secret was to wait until they caught an employee in flagrante delicto, grab the culprit, take him for a ride and beat him close to death. The proper technique was not just to break the thieves’ legs and arms, but to beat him so severely that he would have a number of months in the hospital to worry about whether he’d ever be able to work again. At that point, the wise guy explained, the secret was to approach the severely injured malfeaser and explain that his luck had changed. He would now have a job for the rest of his life explaining to new employees the consequences of stealing from the restaurant. Disgusted, Russell refused the offer and regretfully, shut down his restaurant.

One of my favorite Bill Russell stories is addressed especially to non-Americans who think they know everything about racial conditions in the United States. In 1965, a team of collegiate basketball players took a tour behind the Iron Curtain and did so poorly that Radio Moscow crowed that this was one more indication of America’s decadence. Someone in the State Department who had President Johnson’s ear decided that we should teach those Russkies a lesson. The NBA put together a team of the league’s finest players (including Russell, Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robinson, Jerry West and several other notables) and sent them on a tour that was not so much for goodwill, but the basketball equivalent of an all-out nuclear strike.

While strolling through downtown Warsaw, Bill Russell was a conspicuous sight. He was approached by a group of Bulgarian students who asked if he was American. They quizzed him on racial conditions in the United States. Bill Russell spent about half an hour giving them very straightforward answers, as is his nature. He had a hard time keeping from chuckling, however, as those enlightened Bulgarians reassured him that he would not received that kind of treatment in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. Finally, their professor told him, “That was very interesting Mr. Russell. Now, would you please sing a song or do a dance for us? How about “Go Down, Moses?”” I’m happy to say that Bill Russell has an excellent sense of humor.

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