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Bill Russell


I read Bill Russell’s new book Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend (written with Alan Steinberg) last Thursday. A pleasant little book, though extremely repetitious. I bought it for Joel for his birthday 10 days ago, knowing he might not be too keen to read about the Boston Celtics, but thinking he might enjoy the historical perspective it would provide on basketball in the 1950s and 1960s. He went back to Boston a week ago and the book stayed here. When I was in the midst of some project in the basement bedroom Thursday afternoon, I saw it sitting around, so I began to read the Prologue. A few hours later, I had finished the book.

Bill Russell is one of the giants of sport whom I always regret that I came to appreciate too late. Like a number of other figures of that era, he was still at the height of his powers when I began to follow the given sport, but I was too focused in those early years of fandom on rooting for my own team to enjoy the greatness of players on other teams. And none in basketball was greater than Russell. Only in his final two years as player (and coach), when the Celtics yet again won the NBA title, did I begin to understand that there might be something special about him. I eventually got to place him in proper perspective: the NCAA championships for the University of San Francisco in 1955 and 1956, the Olympic gold medal in 1956, then the NBA championship in his first season as a Celtic, in 1957, followed by eight in a row from 1959 to 1966, the break in 1967 when that great 76er team of Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, and Billy Cunningham won, and then the final two championships. A record unrivaled by anyone in any other major team sport. And the Celtics won all those championships because Russell re-defined the game, in partnership with his coach Red Auerbach, putting defense and quickness at its heart.

Well, you can read about it in the book, though without much detail. It’s mostly a collection of anecdotes about Russell’s relationship with Auerbach alternating with repetitious philosophizing about what true friendship is. I enjoyed it. In part, I enjoyed getting a fuller picture of two men I used to view as enemies. But Joel’s comment when I told him I had read it struck me as on target. He had in fact started it before he returned to Boston, but decided it was written for nine-year-olds.

For more thoughts, see Bill Bradley’s review in the New York Times last month.

Categories: Biography, Books, Sports
  1. mceezy
    July 6, 2009 at 9:27 AM

    If you haven’t seen it, there’s a great short documentary made about how Bill Russell’s USF squads changed college basketball. I have nothing to do with it, just posted it on our blog… http://doin-work.com/2009/06/03/greatest-college-basketball-team-ever/

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