This is Bill Russell

by May 17, 2010

This is Dave Zirin’s latest Louder Than a Bomb column as it appears in SLAM #139.

by Dave Zirin

In 1995, I studied for more than a month on an island off the coast of Chile. It was a farming community with no electricity or running water. One day I overheard two young men talking and one said, “Esta cosa es Bill Russell!” I did a double take. “This thing is Bill Russell??”

I asked what they were talking about and learned that in their community, to say something was “Bill Russell” was an expression for something truthful and not to be doubted; it was a way to end an argument without further discussion if you were utterly confident that you were factually correct. Apparently years earlier there had been a argument on the island about whether Bill Russell had gone to the University of San Francisco or UCLA. It lasted hours. When they were finally able to take a boat into town and look up that yes, Russell went to USF, the community vowed to never again waste time on such pointless debates. From then on, a person who was deeply confident in a fact could just say, “It’s Bill Russell,” and the discussion would cease. “Bill Russell” was the truth.

For 15 years, I’ve dreamed of telling the real Bill Russell that story. Even for me, a New York kid who broke into hives every time Bird, McHale and Parish came to MSG draped in kelly green, I respected and admired Bill Russell. It wasn’t the 11 championships in 13 years or the fact that he never lost a Game 7. It’s that he stood for something. On the Mt. Rushmore of athletes who used their platform to make a difference, Russell stands with Ali, Ashe and Billie Jean.

I literally had dreams about craning my neck, looking Bill Russell in the eye and saying, “It’s Bill Russell.” On April 15, I was finally able to do it, and I did it in front of 500 people, including 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos. I was MCing the annual Heroes in Sports gala hosted by the remarkable Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. Russell flew across the country from his home in the Pacific Northwest to induct his friend and former teammate Thomas “Satch” Sanders into the Center’s Hall of Fame. The Center is an organization that unabashedly attempts to organize for the social good through sports. Bill Russell was right at home. In introducing Russell to induct Satch, I was finally able to tell the “Bill Russell” story. But the highlight of the evening had actually taken place several hours earlier.russellzirin

At a cocktail party before the festivities, I approached Russell with more than a little trepidation. Most of us in media have had the experience of meeting one of our heroes and wishing we’d saved ourselves the trouble. There’s a part of us that doesn’t think our idols have the right to be cranky, grumpy, silly, stinky—in other words, human.

But Bill Russell was everything I could have dreamed of. (And thank you to John Carlos for making the introduction.) Not only was he open and friendly, but within seconds he told me a story from his past. It wasn’t a story about facing Wilt or blocking Oscar. It was about standing up to a radio talk show host in 1968. “He said to me that those Olympic protestors (Smith and Carlos) should be arrested and should have their citizenship revoked. I asked him why and he said politics have no place at the Olympics. I asked him if he knew how [Olympic President] Avery Brundage prevented Marty Glickman (a Jewish American) from running in Berlin in 1936 so Hitler wouldn’t be embarrassed? So it’s really about who is allowed to be political.”

Carlos piped in, “I know that’s the last time you were on that show!”

Mr. Russell also chatted about today’s players, the corrupting influence of mega-contracts on the game, and other topics I won’t repeat, except to say that his personal generosity was remarkable for anyone: famous or otherwise. He was effortless and beautifully human.

Perhaps Mr. Russell was in high spirits because he was with his friend Satch Sanders. In his speech inducting Satch, he said, “I once said to Nelson Mandela how lucky I felt to be alive at the same time as him. I feel that way about Satch Sanders. Satch, it was a deep lifelong pleasurable experience to play on a team with you. And I will say that when I left the Celtic locker room, I said I didn’t care about going to heaven because it would be a step down. That feeling was because of friends like Satch.”

There were a few sniffles in the crowd, but Satch broke it up by saying as he approached the lectern, “I never thought I’d hear Bill Russell tell the truth so eloquently!”

This was an older Bill Russell, his hair and beard snow white, his back still ramrod straight but his neck slightly bent. Still, his spirit, his character and his proud political will were even more evident in person than they are in the history books. It was an honor to meet him and I really do feel that all of us, whether you are a basketball fan or not, owe him a debt. And that, dear readers,  is “Bill Russell.”