"Every ounce of him burned to win."
Those aren’t my words.
Those are Bob Cousy’s.
I don’t get into discussions over the greatest player in NBA history, and that’s why.
For me, if you have to make a case that your candidate is the greatest player of all time, you’ve admitted that your candidate isn’t the greatest player of all time.
There’s no dispute over the location of the top of Mount Everest. You don’t have to make a case for your particular choice of the summit — it’s there and plainly obvious to everyone. Heck, you can see it clearly from more than a hundred miles away.
And that’s how it is with Bill Russell.
I don’t have to make a case that Russell was the greatest player in NBA history — nobody does — because nobody has come close, or ever will come close, to doing what he did.
“The only important statistic in basketball,” Russell once said, “is the final score.”
Mount Everest is the result of the collision of two land masses, a process that is so slow it took mankind thousands of years to realize that it’s even happening, and yet so powerful that it can take rocks formed on the floor of an ocean and raise them almost 30,000 feet into the air.
The forces that shaped Bill Russell’s career were no less tectonic. He was born in Louisiana twenty years before Brown vs. Board of Education saw the Supreme Court declare that separate but equal “is inherently unequal.” He was raised in an environment where a gas station attendant could put a shotgun in his father’s face in front of several witnesses without fear of consequence, where a policeman felt free to tell his mother to go home and change because she was wearing ‘white women’s clothes'.
Russell played the game of basketball with a white hot rage, and no great effort is required to find the source of that anger. Anger is the only reasonable response to the contempt that people who looked like Russell were subjected to on a daily basis.
As a black man in a northern city without Jim Crow, with a self-satisfied populace who considered racism to be a southern problem, Russell faced a different kind of racism: the racism of people who felt that they were not racist because their prejudices had never been enshrined in law.
Oh, blacks should have equal access, they would say, but then they would refuse to sell a house to a black man if it was in a white neighborhood. They weren’t being racist, they would say, they were just protecting their property values.
And when a man with a college education was hired to coach the Celtics, they would ask him if he felt that he was intelligent enough to handle the job. Not because he was black, of course, but because it was such an unusual decision to hire someone like him as a coach.
No, it’s not hard at all to figure out where Russell’s anger came from.
And he channeled that anger into a legacy of winning that has no equal in American sport.
Russell went on the court bent on nothing less than total domination, and he had the athletic ability to impose his will on the best players of his generation, so much so that it has become popular today to discredit an entire era because no one in that era could defeat Russell and his Celtics.
Eleven titles in thirteen years says nothing about the rest of the NBA and everything about Bill Russell.
Russell retired when he could no longer summon that titanic rage.
Basketball is a young man’s game, and anger is a young man’s pursuit. About a year ago, I was talking with an old friend and he said, “I don’t get as angry as I used to, I don’t have the energy.”
And over time, Russell mellowed, not because the racism that does not call itself racism went away — it’s still very much a part of the world we live in — and not because it ceased to anger him, but because he turned the fight over to the next generation.
We heard that raspy cackle more often.
He flipped off Charles Barkley on national TV.
He told Shaq he could kick his ass, along with those belonging to Kareem, Hakeem and David Robinson.
We found out that it wasn’t just anger that Russell was expressing when he took the court — he let us know that he found joy out there as well.
He found the courage to admit he was wrong and restore his friendship with Wilt Chamberlain before it was too late.
He lived 35 years before playing his last game with the Celtics, and another 53 years afterward, and those years must be the most important ones for his family and his friends. For the most part, we were not there for those years, and that’s as it should be.
But what we saw was enough. We saw a fighter who at last found peace, who had discovered how, as Jane Austen once wrote, “to think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.”