A Celticsblog.com exclusive Interview
By Mitch Hylton (aka Master Po)
MCB - I know that I have read somewhere (and I don’t know if it is true or not) that you spend some time mentoring some of the young Celtics. Is that true? How much time do you spend around the Celtics? Do you really get involved to that degree, and do you have any desire to get back into coaching in some form?
BR - I know all the kids and they are a great bunch of kids but I have no desire whatsoever to coach.
MCB – There were time last year when I wish that you did (nervous soft laugh by me).
BR – That is never something I wanted to do. I have had opportunities to, but that’s not what I wanted. In fact, when I coached the Celtics it took too many conversations to get me to do that. Red and I had twenty or more conversations about him wanting me to take it – to coach. And it was not something that I jumped at. It was almost like a last resort.
MCB – Well I would say that was a last resort that paid off. I am glad he convinced you to do it.
BR – (chuckles a bit) Well Red and I were soul mates.
MCB – Yes, I really can see that in many of the things you have said and written.
BR – Yes. In fact before I took the job, he made up a list, and I made up a list, and he told me that he was NOT hiring his replacement unless I gave him 100% approval. Which is kind of unusual I think? (I agreed with Mr. Russell) And what he said to me was that I had played too hard, and meant too much to this franchise to hire someone that would come in and start messing with you. A lot of coaches would have came in and said: "I am not Red Auerbach and this is the way we are going to do it" Well, we weren’t going to let that happen. Of course Red and I had a bunch of negotiated agreements of when and how many minutes I would play and everything. Things related to practice, travel, hotel and all kinds of things. So, most coaches would have considered some of those things a "challenge" (emphasis on challenge). Red and I said these were not challenges but rather just negotiated settlements so to speak, because Red had an enormous amount of integrity. One of the parts of his integrity was that he recognized that other people can have integrity also, and you must respect that. If you want someone to respect your integrity, you have to respect their integrity. So Red and I got along from the very first day.
(Comment: This part of the conversation confused me at first, as I thought for a moment that Bill Russell was talking about agreement(s) he and Red had while Red was coaching Bill, but I soon figured out he was referring to the agreements that would be required of a new coach, had Bill Russell not ended up coaching the Celtics himself, (i.e. the lists he referred to that he and Red drew up). The new coach would have to agree to things before he could become the coach of the Celtics. I am glad that bridge was never crossed, as I am sure all Celtic fans are glad as well)
MCB – Just as an outside observer in all the things I have read, all that love, and all that friendship, certainly shows through in all the pictures and all the film clips and every article. I would imagine that friendship was a wonderful gift to have.
(Bill had no response to this last comment of mine, and I suddenly felt like my comment was maybe a bit too personal, or maybe he suddenly felt uncomfortable by talking about Red, and his close relationship with Red, with a stranger, so I quickly moved on. Hey, what can I say? I got caught up in the surreal moment of talking to the great Bill Russell talking intimately about the Legendary Red Auerbach. I hopefully did not cross any line here, but it was surreal)
MCB – Mr. Russell I hope you have time for a few more questions. Speaking of the days of old, my next question is related to the list of the Legends you have at this camp. When I look back at all these Legend players, and how they were good stewards and protectors of the game of basketball,
BR (interjects) – that is absolutely true
MCB (continuing the question) I was just wondering if you think today’s players are taking care of the NBA in the way you think they should to preserve the game for generations to come?
BR – Well I’ll tell you I have enormous respect and affection for the players of today. I have made it a point to get to know them. They are a bunch of young guys that we can be very proud of. For example I don’t know if you know this but almost every player has a Foundation, at least all the high profile players, have Foundations that helps kids. They don’t publicize that much, and the NBA does not publicize that much. Also, we, as the NBA, do a tremendous amount of community service. Most of the players are dedicated professionals and respectful young men- almost model citizens. Now I will say that none of them aspires to sainthood (we both laugh). But they are young men that we can be proud of and to be associated with. They work as hard as players have ever worked.
Every year I go to the rookie orientation and I do not know anywhere where I have met a nicer bunch of young men. They keep coming to the NBA
MCB – It seems like even the young players such as Ryan Gomes, whom I just hated to see go, are going to be good stewards for the game.
BR – Yes, you take the class with Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade, well those three kids came in and they are the wave of the future and we can all be glad that they are young men who can be upfront and out front.
MCB – Speaking of young players what are you thoughts on Al Jefferson and his future in the NBA?
BR – Well, you know I never do that. I am one of the guys that I don’t think you have ever heard me make a prediction
MCB – No, not that I recall, no sir.
BR – I don’t do that because I am one of the old old old people and I can wait for them to play the games.
MCB – (laughing out loud) I love that answer, that’s very good (Bill chuckles in the background) That’s a nice answer. I just don’t think when Al Jefferson plays the games this year, I will not be watch his box scores if does well, as I really enjoyed watching him play as a Celtic.
BR – Oh good (he sounded genuinely happy that some Celtic fan enjoyed watching young players. That is how I took the comment anyway – but that was all he said about Al Jefferson.)
MCB – Have you had a chance to talk with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett yet?
BR – No I haven’t, but I know both of them fairly well. I make sure I get a chance to meet all the young players and most of these guys are basically friends of mine. I go out of my way to get know all of them that I can from all the teams and not just the Celtics, because my approach to NBA basketball is that I want as many players (I don’t care what team they are on) playing their best. So, when we go to an NBA game we can be sure that we are seeing the best players in the world on a regular basis. I am always concerned about the quality of the game and that’s kind of important to me.
MCB – Again, you did a good job of leading me into my next question. I have a hypothetical question, and maybe you won’t answer this but I’ll ask it anyway. If David Stern, the NBA Commisioner were to call you tomorrow give you an opportunity to change one thing about the NBA game to improve the game what would it be?
BR – (about 10 seconds of silence) – Probably the size of the schedule.
MCB – To adjust the schedule?
BR – Yes, the reason I would do that is because I think the guys play too much.
MCB – 82 games plus the playoffs?
BR – Yes, and some of the kids from the other countries play in the off-season. I think that is one the reasons we have the amount of injuries we have.
MCB - As a selfish Celtic fan I always worry when I hear about Celtic player playing in a summer type-game situations and I want to say "can you save that for the season as I don’t want anybody to get hurt".
BR – Yeah, that is just what I am talking about.
MCB – In the last season with us only winning 23 games, in just terms of winning and losing (and not meaning the death of players or anything like that), was that one of the more difficult years for you to watch as a Celtic?
BR – No, not really, you I live my life almost according to the Alcoholics creed: One day at a time. Some days are tough, and some days are OK, so you take them as they come, and always ALWAYS do the best you can.
MCB – I appreciate that answer. It sounds like something my late father would say so I do appreciate that answer.
I have lots more questions as I could talk about the Celtics all day with you but I do not want to be disrespectful of your time. I am however trying to convince my wife to give me permission to come out to your camp but that is a tough chore.
BR – (chuckles) I’d love to see you.
(Comment: At this point I then shared a story with Mr. Russell regarding a conversation that I had with my wife about me attending this Legends camp. This in turn elicited a very nice hard laugh and appreciation from Mr. Russell. I want to keep that part to myself for my own private memory, but I have it on tape and it is something I will always treasure (thanks Jeff Clark!))
I told Mr. Russell once again how appreciative I was of him taking the time to answer questions, and how honored I was to speak with him. I told him that I wished we could talk Celtic basketball again, because in Kansas there are not many people to talk with about Celtic basketball (he again laughed). He proceeded to tell me that he has some Celtic friends/fans in a small Kansas town (which I won’t mention). I asked him if he ever came to Wichita, Kansas and this was his great answer which shows how much he loved winning:
BR – You know the first basketball tournament we ever one at San Francisco we played Wichita State
MCB (silly me) – Back when Wichita State actually had a good team?
BR - (laughs a little) Well, uh yeah – we had a lot of fun with them (we both laugh).
MCB – In other words, I don’t think you lost?
BR – (laughs again) – Uh, no that wasn’t the situation (laughs).
MCB (Speaking of Kansas) Do you think JoJo White is in game-shape to play back up PG for the Celtics this season?
BR – Uh no, I see JoJo quite often, in fact I see a lot of the Celtics quite often, and JoJo, like the rest of us may look like his in shape but……..
I asked Mr. Russell (in a very awkward, somewhat embarrassing and nervous manner which I will not disclose to you guys) that if the Celtics were leading the Atlantic division at the All-Star break if he and I could talk again. He graciously agreed. I will not hold him to it, as I think that would be imposing too much on this fine man’s time, but it was very nice of him to agree. I told him I was nervous and he said "Don’t worry about it" He said: "I’ll make you deal, you don’t be nervous and I won’t be nervous" I said you have no reason to be nervous. We both laughed. I was completely in awe of this person and he just made me laugh about being nervous and showed what a gracious person he is.
We said goodbye and my dream conversation was over. Just like that……just like that.
I just want to say in summary four final things about this story and interview.
1.) I have no follow-up act to this!! And even if I did, how could I top Bill Russell anyway. Thanks Jeff Clark for the space to write this and for your help.
2.) Bill Russell re-energized me about the Celtics this year, and in just being a lifelong Celtic fan – Thanks Mr. Russell.
3.) If you have ANY inkling that you might want to attend an adult fantasy camp then I encourage you to go check out Mr Russell’s Legend camp. I want to go so bad, but I cannot it appears. I hope some of you can go: http://www.friendsofbillrussell.com
4.) Long live the Boston Celtics and long live Mr. Bill Russell.