"Bothering Bill Russell" by Leigh Montville excerpted from "OUR BOSTON: Writers Celebrate the City They Love," edited by Andrew Blauner, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2013 by Andrew Blauner. Reprinted by permission of Leigh Montville. All rights reserved.
The public relations man for the Boston Bruins in the spring of 1969 was Herb Ralby. There was a Guys and Dolls aspect to him. He was fifty-four years old, single, a flashy dresser in that Nathan Detroit way, all plaids and bright colors. He didn't talk like Nathan Detroit, but he was familiar with the horse people at Suffolk Downs, with the greyhound people at Wonderland in Revere, with the boxing people like Sam Silverman and Rip Valenti, who operated in the shadows around the Boston Garden. An old-time sport, that was what Herb Ralby was.
As a public relations director, he specialized in using the word "no." PR men in professional sports, probably in most endeavors, are divided into two groups: the ones who believe their job is to sell the product to the general public and the ones who believe their job is to protect their product from the general public. Ralby was definitely in the second group.
"Herb, do you think I could have five minutes with Bobby Orr?" a reporter might ask.
"No," Ralby would reply.
"But -- "
Trying to find out when and where the Bruins practice would be held on a given day was like trying to find out the pope's underwear size at the Vatican. ("Give me a call later.") Asking for a Bruins press guide was like asking for the minutes of a top-secret Pentagon briefing. ("Didn't I give you one of these last month?") The inquiring reporter was a pest buzzing around the proceedings.
The irony was that Ralby, the man with the perpetual no, had a second job: he also was a sportswriter for the Boston Globe. In the local pest business, he was both exterminator and exterminatee. Take away a couple of years in the U.S. Coast Guard, in the Pacific during World War II, and he had worked at the Globe since he graduated from Boston Latin School in 1931. He had been both a sportswriter and local sports PR man for a long time.
If the paper, or even the Bruins, had ethical reservations about conflict of interest, no one apparently said a word. The one adjustment was that Ralby did not cover the Bruins; he covered the Celtics. The teams played on different nights in the same building, so there was no obvious conflict. The fact that, oh, a good story about the Bruins might be scheduled to appear in Tuesday's paper and a better Celtics story might be squashed by the PR man/beat reporter never seemed to interest any of the interested parties. Ralby was the equivalent of the Democratic town chairman covering the Republican political campaign for the largest newspaper in town.
The one good thing about this situation for another reporter on that newspaper, aside from a closeup lesson in how big-time, objective journalism should not work, was that the Celtics did play a lot games on the road on the same nights the Bruins played at the Garden. Since Herb Ralby had to appear as his Nathan Detroit self to say no to a succession of people at the Garden, the other reporter had to travel sometimes to cover the Celtics in other arenas. The other reporter in this case was me.
I was twenty-five years old, new on the scene from New Haven, Connecticut. I had covered a number of Celtics games during the 1968-69 season, and as the playoffs arrived, the good news also arrived. The Bruins and Bobby Orr had reached the Stanley Cup playoffs, the second time in two years. This meant that starting on April 2, 1969, with a game at the Garden against the Toronto Maple Leafs to open a best-of-seven quarterfinals, Herb Ralby would be a very busy man. This also meant that someone else would have to cover the Celtics in the playoffs. Thank you, Boston Bruins.
The hardest part about covering the Celtics was dealing with Bill Russell. He was the coach now as well as the all-star center, finishing his third season in both roles. As coach, he was someone who had to be seen every day, checked, just to make sure no one was hurt, that no changes were being made in the lineup, that all was right with the team. This was the hard part. On some days Bill Russell did not like to be seen, did not like to be checked.
"Bill ...," the reporter might say.
"Not now," the player-coach might reply.
Not a lot of people covered the Celtics on a full-time basis in 1969. After an off-day practice, there might be two or three writers in the locker room looking for words from the coach and the players. Sometimes there might be only one writer on the job. Interviews were intimate, conversations more than grand presentations. They were more dialogue than Q and A.
The Celtics players mostly were gracious in this forced relationship. The tsunami of easy money had not arrived, and though they made more than the average sports reporter, they didn't make a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand times more.
John Havlicek was terrific. He would talk about anything, deep, reflective stuff. He studied the reporters the same way they studied him. He gave grades in his head when he read their stories in the paper the next day, checking to see how accurately he had been quoted. If he found mistakes, rather than confronting the reporter, he took pains to explain himself better the next time the reporter came to his locker.
"There's one guy, no matter how many times I explain, he always gets it wrong," Havlicek lamented once. "I spell things out for him. He still gets them wrong."
Tom Sanders was a very good interview, deep voice, funny. Don Nelson was good. Sam Jones. Bailey Howell. Emmett Bryant, maybe the coolest man on the planet. Larry Siegfried. ("I know every move Oscar Robertson is going to make before he makes it," Siegfried said one night in frustration in a bar, getting down into a defensive stance. "I just ... can't ... get ... there ... before he makes it.") The relationships with all of these people were back-fence easy, no different from neighbors talking to one another, people who might be different in a bunch of ways but found themselves living on the same street.
Not so with Bill Russell. He lived on a bunch of different streets.
In later life, in shorthand history, in retrospect, he has become a revered figure, William Felton Russell, basketball great, basketball statesman, known for his cackle at things funny, for his thoughtful observations about all of life, not simply his sport, for his place in the one-foot-after-another march forward for civil rights. A statue of him is going to be added soon to the Boston landscape, along with statues of mayors and senators, of people like Paul Revere and George Washington and, OK, Red Auerbach. He is cast as sort of a Gandhi in short pants and Chuck Taylor sneakers.
In 1969, he was not Gandhi. True, there were moments when he could be introspective, charming. There was no doubt about his intelligence. He could flip subjects upside down and look at them in different, interesting ways. He simply didn't want to flip sometimes. He didn't want to talk. He didn't want to be bothered.
Especially by a twenty-five-year-old reporter.
The Celtics were not expected to do very much in these playoffs. The exclamation point at the end of the Russell era supposedly had been delivered at the end of the 1968 season, when the aging center and his aging teammates rallied from a 3-1 deficit against the Philadelphia 76ers to survive the Eastern finals and then whipped the Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA title in six games. That comeback was late-career magic, giving Russell and company not only their tenth NBA title in twelve seasons, but revenge for a championship they had lost in 1967.
The 1968-69 season was a different story. Russell was now thirty-five years old and shooting guard Sam Jones was almost thirty-six, and the defending champions had finished fourth in the six-team Eastern Division with a 48-34 record. Seventeen of those losses were by three points or less, a sign that the home runs of the past now landed on the warning track. Age had taken control. These were the close games the old Russell Celtics had always won.
NBA greed was the only reason the team was in the playoffs. Fourth place in a six-team division was good enough in the gateconscious league. The Celtics were embarrassed at their situation. They finished nine games out of first place.
"It's bad overall for the fourth-place team in a six-team league to make the playoffs," Sam Jones said. "But the league needs money and here we are. We're going to do the best that we can."
As the playoffs began, the Celtics against the 76ers in the first round, I had a suggestion for my boss at the Globe, Ernie Roberts. I think it came from a secret desire to put myself in harm's way. The other papers in town, the Boston Record American and the Boston Herald Traveler, had ghostwriters doing columns for Havlicek and for Celtics general manager Red Auerbach. I suggested we should do that, too.
"Who would we have?" Roberts asked.
"What about Bill Russell?" I said.
He mulled the idea as if it was the strangest suggestion that ever came across his desk. I don't think any black athlete had ever been featured in a ghostwritten article in Boston.
"Would he do it?" Roberts asked.
"I'll ask," I said.
The price was very short money. I want to say $200 per column. I laid out the possibility for Russell after a practice. He agreed almost immediately. He liked the money. Or maybe he liked the idea. He liked something. I volunteered to be his ghost, but he said he'd write his own stuff, thank you very much. He would call a Globe number and speak into a Dictaphone recorder and some office boy would type his words and put them into the paper.
The Globe had the headline RUSSELL TO COVER FOR GLOBE on the first day of the Philadelphia series. The text was priceless.
"From a height of 6 feet 9 inches," the story read. "From the unequalled experience of 13 playing years and 10 world championships in professional basketball. From the emotional perspective of the most involved Celtic in tonight's Philadelphia playoff. And with the candor of a man who tells it as it is, who knows no subterfuge ... That's the viewpoint Globe readers will enjoy when Boston's Bill Russell reports the opener and all the rest of the Celtics' playoff battles exclusively in the Morning and Evening Globe ... "
My job, as the Celtics rolled through the Sixers in five games, then through the Knicks in six in the Eastern finals, was to write informative, hopefully different stories for both the morning and evening editions, and, of course, to make sure Russell made that phone call at the end of all games. I worried more about the phone calls than the stories or the games.
"Bill ... ," I would say, a foot shorter than the big man as he dressed.
End of dialogue.
His stories were punchy, informative, pretty good. He called after every game, win or lose.
The finals, of course, were against the Lakers of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain. This became a classic series, coast to coast. The Lakers went ahead, two games to none, in the first two games in L.A. The underdog Celtics won the next two in Boston, the second by an 89-88 score, on a jumper by Sam Jones at the end. The fifth game, back in L.A., went to the Lakers, and the sixth, in Boston, to the Celts. This set up that legendary final seventh game at the Fabulous Forum, where Lakers owner Jack Kent Cook had filled the rafters with balloons and instructed the organist to play "Happy Days Are Here Again" when the final buzzer sounded and the Lakers were world champions.
The plans went awry when Wilt was injured, then was kept on the bench at the end of the game as Don Nelson made a circus shot that hit the back rim, went high into the air, then back through the basket, and the Celtics pulled off the 108-106 win. This still is one of the biggest upsets in NBA history.
The end was surreal, the Celtics whooping and tumbling off the court, running and shouting to one another through a fog of silence and resentment. The Laker fans looked as if they'd all lost their wallets. Wilt was on the bench? What was that? The Celtics had won again? What was that? The eight bags of balloons remained unopened at the top of the Forum. Five cases of champagne remained unopened in the Lakers locker room. A victory cake remained unsliced in the Forum press room.
In the corridor outside the visitors' dressing room, waiting for the door to open, chaos around me, I tried to slow down my head and make a game plan. Whom did I want to see? What did I want to ask? Before I could decide very much, I had an extra assignment.
"Wait until everyone is gone," Will McDonough, also covering the game for the Globe, told me. "Grab Russell when he's alone. Ask him if he's going to retire. A guy told me it's going to happen."
"A guy?" I said.
That was Will. He had the ultimate newsman's sources. There always was a guy. There never was a name attached to the guy. Will always had a different look at all situations. While everyone else was dizzy at the newest grand moment, still digesting what had just happened, he had already moved along to the next one.
"Why don't you ask Russell yourself?" I asked.
"Russell hates me," McDonough said. "You've got to do it."
The door opened. I rolled in with the crush, television cameras whacking people in the head, push, shove, push, push, push. The game plan was gone. I asked questions wherever I landed. I kept my eye on Russell.
Havlicek told me there had never been champagne in a Celtics locker room for any of the eleven championships. He wasn't sure why. Probably superstition. Sam Jones told me he had worn Bailey Howell's shorts for the last half of the season. There had been a mixup one day, and the jumpers fell that day for both parties. The shorts were lucky. In the Lakers locker room, I listened to Wilt and to Butch van Breda Kolff talk like a divorced couple, recriminations delivered in cold, dispassionate words. Changes were sure to happen. Jerry West, who scored forty-two points in the game despite a sore hamstring, talked about sadness.
"Every year it gets more difficult to sit here and talk about it," he said. "It gets more difficult after hearing those guys yelling and celebrating in that other room ... I guess it's just not my fate to be with a champion."
Russell never left my mind. Get him alone. Get him alone. He was in a crowd for the longest time. Then he was in the shower for the longest time. Then there was another crowd when he started to dress. I waited. The crowd did become smaller as Russell put on each piece of clothing, but the process was slow. Would he ever be alone? As he finished dressing, a moment from leaving the arena, Russell talked with one last friend. The friend was Jim Brown, the former Cleveland Browns running back, maybe the greatest football player who ever lived.
If I wanted to talk to Russell, I had to move into the middle of this conversation. Or never move at all.
"Bill," I said, interrupting the greatest basketball player of all time as he talked with the greatest football player of all time.
A look came my way.
Actually two looks.
These were not pleasant looks.
Jim Brown was wearing a dashiki and one of those little African hats he favored at the time. Russell ... I can't remember, but I'm sure it was one of his cool outfits, maybe with the full Batman cape. He was huge and Jim Brown was huge and in the spring of 1969, that time of racial upheaval and revolution and all of that stuff, one year from the Martin Luther King riots, here were the two most militant African-American figures in professional sports, not to mention the two greatest players of all time in their respective sports, and I had interrupted them and they both stared down at me and I felt very white and red-headed and short and insignificant.
"Are you going to retire?" I blurted.
The question was a housefly floating in the air.
"Retire?" Jim Brown replied in a loud voice before Russell could speak. "The man just won a world championship! Why would he retire?"
I nodded, of course, in quick agreement. Why would he retire? Ridiculous. I wanted to say that I hadn't thought up this question, that Will McDonough had thought it up because some guy, whoever the guy was, had said something. You know?
"I have another year on my contract," Russell said. "I signed that contract."
I nodded again. Of course. Silly of me.
We stood there, the three of us, a locker room tableau. Two proud, great, iconic black men, not only Hall of Famers, but higher than that. Legends. Two legends! And one twenty-five-year-old sportswriter.
"One more thing, Bill," I said.
"I'll call when I get back to the hotel," the greatest basketball player of all time said.
And he did.
And a couple of months later, of course, he retired. He sold the story to Sports Illustrated.
OUR BOSTON: Writers Celebrate the CIty They Love" goes on sale today, Tuesday, October 15th, the six-month anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. For every copy sold, $5 will be donated to The One Fund Boston to help the victims of the bombings and their families.