A Few Moments With A Legend – Mr. Bill Russell

A CelticsBlog.com Exclusive Interview
Part I
By Mitch Hylton (aka Master Po)


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I have always had a tiny hidden desire to have an opportunity to share a few words or moments with a handful of famous people I admire. To name a few: Bob Dylan, Mohammed Ali, Bob Marley, Willie Nelson, and of course Bill Russell. These are people who I saw as remaining true to their own inner voice, while being under the outside pressures that many of us would crumble under if we were thrust into a position of fame. Somehow they stayed true to their beliefs it seems, and at the same time, changed the world around them in a positive and lasting way.  

Now don’t get me wrong here. I don’t mean a weird burning passion, desire or insane quest to track famous people down, and force myself into their private sphere for a minute, while waving a piece of paper, microphone or camera  in their face. I did not do that to Mr. Russell! I simply mean a small hidden fantasy that someday I might cross paths and talk with someone whom I have admired from afar. To have a chance to let them know that I have admired what they have accomplished, and what they represent to me and many others. To be able to ask this legendary person a few questions and have him talk to me for a few private moments is quite a rare opportunity that I never anticipated.

Well sometimes the winds of fate and synchronicity kindly blow your way and take you on a brief ride of good fortune. I had such a brief ride of very nervous pleasure last Thursday when I spoke with Mr. Bill Russell on the phone for 40 wonderful minutes. Shortly thereafter I had a mini-stroke and threw up.

Without boring you with the details of how exactly this interview came to be, or without describing to you in detail how a 49 year old man was almost too giddy to talk once he had "his big interview moment", let me say the following about this specific CelticsBlog article and the following Bill Russell interview:

1.) Jeff Clark – thanks again for letting me be a part of this blog site all these years and writing articles about my real passion – the Boston Celtics. Without this forum I would have not spoken to Bill Russell, and thus not had a permanent twinkle of real satisfaction dancing in my Celtic green tinted eyes.

2.) This whole interview/fate "thing" started when I was investigating something on the internet that all of you should take a look at as well. Bill Russell is conducting an adult fantasy camp for basketball fans in October in Las Vegas in which spots are still available! (http://friendsofbillrussell.com). When you go to the web site and look at the legends of the NBA that will be at this camp (unprecedented it seems), and when you read below in my interview about what Mr. Russell hopes this camp provides for the lucky participants, I think you will begin (like me) to try and desperately find way to pull the money together and get to Las Vegas. I am still trying!

I hope all of you CelticBlog members enjoy reading the following interview at least a fraction as much as I enjoyed conducting it. Mr. Russell talks about the Celtics and this upcoming season expectations. He talks about the big trades to bring in KG and Ray Allen, and was it the right thing to do. He talked about his best friend, Mr. Red Auerbach, which I found to be a wonderful portion of the conversation. I learned things I had not read before during this portion of the interview. He discussed the current status of the NBA, what he would change in the NBA if he could, and many other things. Again, I hope you enjoy reading it.

Hopefully, I convey to you as an amateur writer what clearly came across to me over the phone: Mr. Russell is as passionate, kind, straightforward, sincere and funny as you know him to be in public. He treated this very nervous professional Celtic fan living in Kansas (posing as a seasoned sportswriter) with patience and humor as I tried to ask him a myriad of questions. The world could use more Bill Russell’s, but I am grateful for the one we all still have, and for the moments I spoke with him.

The Interview:

russell2.jpgI started off by thanking Mr. Russell for taking the time to answer a few questions and letting him know of course how I was a huge fan. I am sure I sounded a bit like Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney on a Saturday Night Live skit a few years ago.

Mitch/CelticsBlog (MCB) – Let’s first start with your current focus which is the: "Bill Russell and His Legendary Friends Adult Basketball Camp" being held October 17th-20th in Las Vegas at the Wynn Hotel. What is the main inspiration for you behind this camp?

Bill Russell (BR) – I just want to have some fun. I went to a camp last year and I had a good time, so I asked myself: if I were to have a fantasy camp what would be a real fantasy camp for me. And so, I called all these guys who are friends of mine and all of them said "when do you want me there?"

MCB -  The list of Legends at this camp is quite amazing – Sam Jones, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Julius Irving, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and  others. Have "Legends" of this Hall of Fame stature ever been gathered at one basketball camp prior to this event? It seems unprecedented to have this "Legends" lineup for a group of Adult fans to be a part of. How did this all come together?

BR – Well like I said, I went about this with ones I would like to see, so I called these guys and they all said "when do you want me there" and that was their immediate response. So we said:  "let’s do it".

MCB – Well I can’t imagine a bigger list of NBA legends being assembled at one camp. I do want you to notice that as a die hard Celtics fan, as I read the list, I read off the Celtics names first.

BR – (Laughs the famous Bill Russell laugh) All of these guys are friends of mine and we have developed a friendship over the years. For example Larry Bird and Jerry West had the exact same response when I said what would you think about doing this. They said: "I’ll do that" (laughs again)

MCB – This sounds like an opportunity that adult basketball fans may only get once in a lifetime. Can you give me a quick rundown on what the lucky participants at this camp can look forward to during this three day event?

BR – Well, first of all we have this set up like a league and all these guys will be playing basketball, and at the same time giving out pointers. It is in Las Vegas at the Wynn Hotel. All these guys will be right there answering questions, giving pointers and the guys can ask them why they were so successful with their specialties and how this can relate to basketball players of all levels and not just superstars. The participants will get a chance to hear from these guys and know them on a first name basis and play some good basketball with them. Most of are kind of old though (laughs). The most important thing (as it is in most of my life) is to have fun.

MCB – I understand at the very end of the camp there is an opportunity for the participants to play golf with some of the Legends. I was wondering if Charles Barkley will be allowed to play golf, and will helmets be provided?

BR (again the BR laugh) – Charles and I have played together a few times and he always tells me "he wants me, he wants me" and I always say "bring it on" (laughs)

MCB – It’s quite a golf swing Charles has.

BR – It’s what we call… different.

MCB – I notice at this event that the camp allows the participants to bring along one additional guest to be a part of the evening dinners and events as an added bonus.

BR – yes, we are talking about fun-filled evenings. It’s one of the reasons we chose Las Vegas, as that is a place known for having fun, so I think we will have some fun.

(Again I strongly encourage any of you interested in attending an adult basketball fantasy camp to please go check this camp at the website for full details. Please be aware donations to my own Bill Russell Legends camp attendance fund are very welcome)

MCB – I want to switch gears a little bit with you and begin to ask you some questions about the Celtics.

As the Boston Celtics enter their 62nd Season in the NBA, and they now move forward without the great living presence of Red Auerbach, do you see yourself as the inspirational patriarch of the Boston Celtics?
 
I certainly know the Celtic fans see it from that perspective, and it seems obvious, at least from a fans vantage point, that the torch has been passed to you by Red? How do you feel in this regard and your role as Celtic leader?

BR – I would never consider myself the Celtic leader. I am just guy who played there and enjoyed it. I am a fan of course, but I would never consider myself in that role.

MCB – Let me put another way, I think when most people of the Boston Celtics the first person they think of is Red Auerbach and the second person that comes to their mind is Bill Russell.

BR – Only because I am the oldest (followed by the Bill Russell laugh)

MCB – No I don’t think that’s the only reason sir.

BR – I am just the oldest ex-Celtic (emphasis) – if you want to call it that. (he was just too humble to answer this question which I expected and respected his brief answer).

MCB – You’re too humble. It’s been almost 21 years since the Celtics raised a banner and yet last year, even though it was a tough season, the fans at the new Garden were still there, and despite this 21 year drought, the Celtics fan spirit still seems to be alive and well. What is your thought on Celtic fans over this long dry spell?

BR – The Celtics never give up for one thing (emphasis on "never give up" in his voice) and with the addition of the new teams and the way the draft is set up it is more difficult for a quick turnaround. It now seems we have made a major jump in getting that turnaround.

MCB – That leads to my next question as I am very curious as to your opinion on this subject. After waiting 21 years for a new banner to be raised do you view this new team now assembled by Danny Ainge, as having all the right physical pieces, and the only things missing perhaps is chemistry and time to gel with each other.

BR – Yep….I think this is going to be a fantastic opportunity….but I don’t think the fans should expect the team to jump out of the gate and win the first 5 games, or the first 10 games, or anything like that. It’s going to be a process where these guys learn how to play with each other. You see it’s very difficult to play with stars because you do not know how you should react when one star starts "doing his thing" (as we call it). So you we have three stars, who have been stars for many years, so we don’t know how they are going to react to each other. So that is a whole process in itself and it has to be a learned process.

MCB – Was it the time right in your mind to switch from a Celtic "youth movement" i.e. cash in most of your young talented and valuable player chips and go for an opportunity to win it all in the next 36 months. Was it really the right time to do that?

BR – Oh yes, when an opportunity like this presents itself you cannot hesitate. You must seize the moment so to speak and it was definitely the right moment and the right thing to do.

MCB – I have been reading a lot about the Celtics since the big KG trade on various NBA news sites and Celtic blog sites. I have ran across this underlying feeling by some fans that in the NBA today there is sense that you simply "buy teams" to quickly win more than you "grow teams" to win. How do you feel about that?

BR – It may seem that way but it is not accurate. When you buy stuff you first have to shop. You must first determine what is out there than can really help you. You just can’t buy players willy-nilly that may never help you. With the Celtics when you get a chance to get the guys they just got, well, you can’t miss that opportunity.  

There is more to come in the interview I wanted to break into parts. Why? Because I am slow and very poor at typing accurately, especially transcribing an interview off of a digital tape recorder. Bill Russell Part II – The Legend Continues is coming soon to a theatre near you.

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