Excerpted from the book Tall Men, Short Shorts by Leigh Montville. Copyright © 2021 by Leigh Montville. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.
No problem. The most intriguing addition to the Boston Globe playoff line-up will finish his 48-minute battle against the big man in front of him, 7’1” Wilton Norman Chamberlain, who happens to be the most prodigious scorer and rebounder in NBA history, deliver a locker room post mortem, make sure his team management duties are done for the night (Practice tomorrow, 11 a.m.), rattle off his obligatory post-game press interviews, shower, dress in some outlandish big-and-tall outfit that sometimes includes a cape, then provide 600 or 700 or 800 words for the good readers of the largest local daily newspaper in New England.
The 2019–20 Celtics media guide in the far-off future lists seven basic assistant coaches to help head coach Brad Stevens, then adds a player enhancement coach, a director of player development and personal growth, a coaching associate/director of player development, two strength coaches, assorted scouts, analysts, video coordinators, trainers, rehabilitation specialists and a director of team nutrition and his assistant. Russell has no assistants. None. He does all of these jobs himself, except the ones that have not been invented. Trainer Joe DeLauri wraps ankles and takes care of the travel arrangements. Russell pretty much takes care of everything else, including the center jump to start the game.
One more job?
The bright young man (yours truly) has been involved in this Russell business since the start of the playoffs. He was thinking he had one assignment—write the greatest articles on the Celtics and basketball and, perhaps, life itself, better than any articles ever written about the Celtics and basketball and life itself, maybe win the first of many Pulitzer Prizes—and now he had two? Two assignments seemed like a lot.
“Make sure Russell remembers to call,” sports editor Ernie Roberts said as the 1968–69 playoffs run began. “Remind him after every game.”
“He can’t remember on his own?” TBYM asked.
“Tell him. Tell him after every game. Make sure.”
This second assignment was accompanied by a possible complication. Tell him? After every game? Telling him involved conversation, interaction. The bright young man’s relationship with the most intriguing addition to the Globe lineup was best described as “distant.”
An awkward salesman-client dance had existed in most transactions from the first meeting. The salesman was young, appropriately nervous, measured his words. He was convinced that he said the wrong thing as soon as every question or simple declarative sentence came out of his mouth. The Intriguing Addition to the Globe Lineup was in control. Older, famous, either busy or exhausted from his busy-ness, his moods would change from day to day, minute to minute. He could be charming, aloof, more aloof, really more aloof, contentious, silent. Pick one. Pick a variation. Pick a day. Distant would be the overriding word.
There were writers Russell liked, old-timers, familiar faces. He would respond especially well to the New York guys, the famous basketball bylines, laugh with them in that high-pitched cackle that was so different that the descriptions of it in stories seemed to be part of an ongoing theme contest. (“If thunder were played on an English horn instead of a kettle drum, you would have some idea of the pitch and tone of Russell’s laughter,” was one prime entrant.) The bright young man was not included in this inside writers group. His questions brought about no cackles. He understood. If this were the army, he was a 5’9”, red-headed private first class. Russell was a decorated 6’9” four-star general. A foot taller. A decade older. Certainly a decade smarter. A busy man.
Did Russell know the bright young man’s name?
No. Probably not.
Did Russell care that he didn’t know?
No. Definitely not.
Once or twice, maybe three times, the bright young Pfc caught the busy, smarter, older, famous general alone in the locker room, time on his hands, and there was a solid conversation. A different question would draw a different response. Russell described moments in his youth, his thoughts about food or movies, his memories of games past against present competition. Fifteen minutes passed. Maybe more. The bright young man would leave in an enthusiastic cloud. Bill knows me at last. I know Bill. The next day, he would see Russell and say “hello,” and Russell would bluster past with no acknowledgement. Nothing had changed.
It was a bonus that no ghostwriter was involved in this new enterprise. Russell wanted his own words to be his own words. He would call a special number at the Globe sports department. An office boy, a “nighthawk,” usually some work-study kid from Northeastern University’s journalism school, would answer. The kid would click on a Dictaphone machine, a recording device. Russell would speak into the phone at his end, delivering his impressions of the game, which would be recorded in the Globe on a floppy blue plastic record.
The nighthawk then would transcribe the words, typing them on a piece of paper attached to two carbons. The paper and carbons would be handed to a copy editor, checked for spelling and grammar, then shipped through a pneumatic tube (whoosh) to a linotype operator who would cast the words in lead and begin the printing process that would finish with Russell’s words whirring out in the 443,037 copies of the morning Globe, a million readers, 564,083 copies, a million and a half readers, if this happened to be the Boston Sunday Globe. The copies would be distributed from the top to bottom of New England, though not so much in the parts of Connecticut near the New York border.
The start of it all, though, would be the phone call. The bright young man had to nudge the famous athlete toward the nearest landline. (There were no cellphones, not even in the wildest public imagination.) The rest would happen as planned.
Russell was a complicated character. In this decade of racial upheaval, of marches and demonstrations, of assassinations and strife, he was basketball’s foremost representative, the tall one, 6’9”. He wasn’t a joiner, part of any organization, but still was front and center. He had been to Washington for the march in 1963, refused a seat on the stage and listened in the crowd to Reverend Martin Luther King’s speech about having a dream. He had been to Mississippi two months before that to run an integrated basketball camp in the aftermath of Medgar Evers’ murder. He had been in Cleveland in 1967 at the so-called summit of Black athletes drawn together by football star Jimmy Brown to advise Muhammad Ali about his battle with the United States government and the draft board.
An overcoat of seriousness was an important part of his wardrobe. He was the socially-activated modern African-American athlete, able to respond to the big events of the time, but also bothered by the daily paper cuts of racism. He was smart enough to recognize slights, subtle as they sometimes might be, bold enough to talk about them. He didn’t care who heard what he had to say.
His size made him recognizable at a first glance, but his disposition made him approachable only at a risk. His basic answer to strangers asking for autographs was “no.” There was little time for chit-chat and bulls---. His basic answer to most of the demands from his celebrity was “no.”
“The first thing we [as Negroes in sport] have to get rid of is the idea that this is a popularity contest,” he told writer Ed Linn in a 1964 article in the Saturday Evening Post entitled “I Owe the Public Nothing” that shaped his public image. “I don’t work for acceptance. It doesn’t matter if the fans like me or not. To me or to them. If they like me and I put up a poor performance, I will still be booed. If they like me and I’m over the hill, they still will say ‘Get that bum out of there.’ They pay to see production, not personalities.
“What I’m resentful of, you know, is when they say you owe the public this and you owe the public that, You owe the public the same thing it owes you. Nothing! Since I owe them nothing, I’ll pay them nothing. I’m not going to smile if I don’t feel like smiling and bow my head modest. Because it’s not my nature. I’d say I’m like most people in this type of life; I have an enlarged ego. I refuse to misrepresent myself. I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies. I don’t think it is incumbent on me to set a good example to anybody’s kids except my own.”
His relationship with the city of Boston was not good. A grid work of neighborhoods determined by ethnicity and class and race put assorted chips on assorted shoulders. The Black population, 9% in 1960, approaching 16% at the end of the decade, was not as large as it was in any number of large American cities. Boston was a tough place for African-Americans, a definite minority, a tough place for anyone from the wrong neighborhood. All the words, all the slights, all the machinations, all the flat-out injustices of racism could be found here, especially if you were paying attention.
Russell always was paying attention.
“Boston itself was a flea market of racism,” he would write in his 1979 memoir, Second Wind, long after he retired. “It had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form. The city had corrupt, city-hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-em-back-to-Africa racists, and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists (long before they appeared in New York.)
“I had no doubt about those people in Boston because I saw them every day. They constantly surprised me, since I’d thought of Boston as the city where Paul Revere rode for freedom. If Paul Revere rode today, it would be for racism. “The n-----s are coming! The n-----s are coming!” he’d yell as he galloped through town to warn neighborhoods of busing and Black homeowners. Most of the Irish Catholics in Boston were ready to pick your fillings out if you weren’t the right religion or from the right clique, much less from the right race…I had never been in a city more involved with finding new ways to dismiss, ignore or look down on other people. Other than that, I liked the city.”
Red Auerbach would preach the philosophy of bad apples. If an incident happened to any of the Black players, he would say that the individual who caused the incident was responsible. If a player couldn’t buy a house, the problem was the individual who was selling the house. Everyone was not to blame. The individual was to blame.
Russell didn’t buy it. He saw an orchard full of bad apples. An ugly incident, a robbery at his home in suburban Reading, helped form his opinion. The robbers wrecked the house, spray-painted N---A on the walls, smashed a bunch of his trophies and finished the destruction by defecating in his bed. How do you explain that to your three small children? How do you explain it to yourself?
“The only time we were really scared was after my father wrote an article for The Saturday Evening Post (See above.),” his daughter, Karen Russell, wrote years later in the New York Times. “He earned the nickname Felton X. We received threatening letters and my parents notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation. What I find most telling is that years later, after Congress had passed the Freedom of Information Act, my father requested his FBI file and found he was repeatedly referred to therein as “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children.”
Russell decided, early in his career, that he played for the Celtics. He played for his teammates. He played for his coach. He did not play for the city of Boston. He did not play for the fans. He played for the Celtics. In another city—in New York, in Los Angeles, somewhere else—perhaps the situation would be different. The championships would have brought true adulation. He would have been a king.
Not all was bad in Boston. There were moments, tons of them, standing ovations, crowds that carried him off the court at the end, tugging on his shirt, but there were obvious limits to the love. Would there be limits in the other places? He never would know.
“It was Russell who made the Celtics winners in those early championships, but it was Bob Cousy who sold the tickets,” Jeff Cohen, former 25-year-old assistant general manager, says. “It was Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, the white guys who sold the tickets. And they didn’t sell a lot of them. Six thousand was a good crowd.”
That was the sad socio-economic fact. There were limits to the love. Racial limits. The one time Russell got mad at Cohen was when Cousy retired. Cohen wrote an article at the start of the next season for the program that was titled “How Are the Celtics Going to Get Along without Cousy?” Russell read the article.
“How are the Celtics going to get along?” he said. “’They’re not going to know who the f--- he was.” And Russell was right. He had a great season, won everything again.
Even his selection as coach was wrapped in whispers. Shouldn’t the choice of the first Black coach in the NBA, first head coach of any North American professional sport in over 30 years, be greeted with some kind of civic applause? Nothing. The stories were that Auerbach had tried Frank Ramsey, Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn, all without success. Russell was the choice because, well, he could coach Russell.
The stories were half right. Auerbach’s major concern was that Russell would continue to play. Retirement had been mentioned in the past, the star player leaving in tandem with his coach. They could bring down the curtain at the same time. That was Russell’s inclination. It was not Auerbach’s inclination at all.
He said, look, let’s each draw up a list of five names about who would be a good coach. Then we’ll compare the names and talk it over. The two men drew up their lists and compared. Not one name was on both lists. This was a frustration to Auerbach.
“What about you?” he said. “Why don’t you become the coach?”
Russell said he had thought about the idea. The challenge was intriguing. He accepted.
“Do you want an assistant?” Auerbach said. “You can have an assistant.”
“You never had an assistant,” Russell said.
“I always thought it would be just another guy I’d have to take care of.”
“I think the same thing,” Russell said.
Was he really the coach? (Yes.) Did he really do all of those jobs? (Yes.) Did he get the credit he deserved? Only when it was wrung out of narrow minds.
“When I was appointed coach of the Boston Celtics the other players accepted me with no antagonism at all,” he said in a Sports Illustrated article after the summit meeting for Ali. “They respected me as a player and my knowledge of the game and they played as hard for me as they used to play for Red Auerbach.
“For quite a while, though, some of the writers around the league seemed to doubt that I was really the coach. They would go to Red and ask him if there were any changes in the lineup or about the condition of a player on the team. I could not help believing that this was, in part, because I am a Negro. I think that now everyone knows that I’m the coach.”
The Globe assignment to chronicle the playoffs was one of the few outside commercial opportunities that had arisen for Russell in Boston. He was the owner of Slade’s, a restaurant/nightclub at 958 Tremont Street, the club purchased in 1964 with the aid of a $90,000 SBA loan. He had his own model of shoe, designed and built to his specifications by the small company in Rhode Island. (“TRI-ACTION outsole gives skidproof contact. Double shock absorbing sponge insole lessens foot fatigue. Padded tongue stays up and centered.” Price: $7.95. Youth sizes available.) He didn’t have much more. An investment in a rubber plantation in Liberia didn’t count.
Advertisers always seemed to want him at a discount. The hell with that. Other people didn’t want him at all. The hell with them.
“The Boston stations got indignant if players like myself refused to go to their station for free to promote their interview shows and newscasts, but I never could get any of them even to discuss the possibility of giving me my own show,” he would say in Second Wind. “When a television station in Boston wanted to hire a professional player from one of the city’s teams as a sportscaster…they didn’t interview a single Black and wound up hiring the placekicker from the Patriots. For these and other reasons, the Boston media seemed to me to represent the city fairly well.”
The bright young man, strange enough, had a role to play in this bit of business with the Globe. He didn’t know so much about the local situation. He wasn’t from one of the neighborhoods, didn’t know a lot about the boundaries and rules. He had the idea that Russell should write the column. He pushed the idea. O.K., he put together the whole deal.
In the playoffs a year earlier, both the Herald and the Record-American featured As-Told-To columnists as part of their packages. The Record had Red Auerbach, friend of sports editor Sam Cohen, on the payroll. The Herald had John Havlicek. The stories weren’t anything special, sort of a forerunner of the how-does-it-feel sideline interviews in the television future, but they were marketable as inside-knowledge reports. The Globe had no one. This did not mean the paper was averse to the idea. It had signed manager Dick Williams and captain Carl Yastrzemski to write as-told-to reports about the Red Sox from this year’s spring training. The Celtics did not seem to have a proper candidate.
“We should have a guy there, too, an inside expert from the team,” the bright young man suggested to Ernie Roberts as the ’69 playoffs arrived.
“Sure, but who would we get?” the sports editor asked. “Everybody’s taken. Auerbach and Havlicek probably will be back with the other papers.”
“What about Bill Russell?” the bright young man said.
The immediate reaction from Roberts was a quiet version of astonishment. Bill Russell? The thought didn’t seem to register. Mr. I Owe The Public Nothing? The civic lightning rod? The ultimate dissatisfied Black man? Didn’t he hate the Boston press? Didn’t he have a lot to do as coach and star player? Would he have any time? A litany of unspoken Bill Russell stereotypes filled the room.
“Do you think he would do it?” Roberts finally asked.
“I could ask him,” the bright young man replied.
Negotiations were not long, nor extensive. TBYM waited after practice for the one or two other writers and most of the players to leave the locker room at the Maurice J. Tobin Gym in Roxbury. He approached Russell in his usual awkward way. A fidget and a cleared throat were followed by the proposition. Russell heard, nodded, asked what the money might be. The bright young man rolled out a modest figure that had been shipped down from someone important in accounting. Russell nodded again and said he would do it. No hands were shaken. No agents or lawyers were involved. No papers were signed. Done.
(I think the price was $200 per column. Might have been less, maybe $180 per column. I checked with the Globe, but no records apparently exist. I do know that the bright young man was making $212 a week, $11,055 for all of 1969. I remember thinking that Russell was making almost as much for one story as I was making for a week’s worth of stories. That would be $200. His salary for 1969, after winning those first 10 championships, was $200,000. It was a different time.)
Ernie Roberts was pleased. This was a distinctive addition to the sports page. Management in the glass offices at the far end of the Morrissey Boulevard building was more than pleased. The Globe was known as the liberal paper in Boston, against the war in Vietnam and for the use of busing to alleviate the racial imbalance of the city’s public schools. These were positions that eventually wound up with gunshots fired at the newsroom from the Southeast Expressway and with Globe delivery trucks stolen and driven into the Fort Point Channel. Russell fit the paper’s image quite well. The people who hated Russell the most also hated the Globe the most.
His first journalistic effort came in the Mar. 27, 1969, paper. The Celtics opened their playoff run with a 114–102 win over the Philadelphia 76ers at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Under a headline that said “Let’s Concentrate on Friday,” the player/coach said that he was pleased by the effort and the result, but warned about overconfidence. In a dash of color, he described how he liked to sleep as much as possible on the day of a game, simply to keep his mind under control. He said that outside of installing a plan of both attack and defense, he didn’t like to think about what was going to take place that night. Thinking made him nervous. He famously had stomach disorders when he became too nervous. His big disappointment in this game, he said, was his foul shooting. (He was 0 for 6 from the free throw line, scored only one basket from the floor, but played all 48 minutes, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked 12 shots.) He said he knew he would take at least 100 foul shots in the next practice to try to straighten his stroke.
The bright young man, as requested, was part of the operation. Before he wrote his own story—“76ers Get a Look at Celtics’ Hole Card – Defense”– he fidgeted, waited again for other writers to leave. Then he stepped up to his new teammate and said in a self-conscious mumble, ‘Bill, don’t forget about the Globe.’ Bill nodded in return.
There were questions that hung around inside TBYM’s head. Did Bill have the right number? How soon would he call? WOULD he call? There would be tension for the bright young man until his new teammate’s words were on that blue plastic record. Maybe the coach hadn’t thought about the game during the long Philadelphia day, but the bright young man had thought about this post-game transaction for every minute.
The assignment, the experiment, whatever it was, worked pretty well for the surprising playoff run. Russell would write columns after 10 of 11 games as the Celtics thumped the Sixers in five games (4–1) and the Knicks in six (4–2). The one game Russell didn’t report on was the second against Philadelphia. Perhaps there was a blue-record problem. (That memory seems to beep softly through the cloud of time.) Perhaps the craziness of the game—Sam Jones ejected early for two technical fouls, Russell tied to the bench for 16 of the last 24 minutes due to his own foul problems in a 134–103 Celtics win—was a factor. No matter. The column was scheduled for the Saturday morning paper, anyway, the least-read paper of the week. The rest of his offerings were perfect.
Russell proved to be a unique voice from the scene. (His sources were quite good.) After the third Philadelphia game, a 125–118 win at the Spectrum to put the Celts ahead, 3–0, in the series, he detailed an important moment when Siegfried and Havlicek told him to put Sam Jones back in the game. The Sixers had cut a Celtics lead down to a basket and the two players thought Jones was needed in the lineup to hit a few jumpers. Russell agreed with the request. Jones immediately hit a jumper.
“The players know I have a lot going on in my mind and I appreciate the help,” the player/coach said/wrote. “I’ve never tried to prove that I’m a big genius and I’ll accept all the help I can get from the players. If something’s not right, let me know.”
A bad game against the Knicks made him confront and reject the possibility of criticizing individuals. (“I don’t like to single out guys in public. I know all these guys and there’s no point to that.”) A Northeastern nighthawk, probably not on the Dean’s List, misspelled the names of Don Chaney (Cheney), Cazzie Russell (Kazzie) and Mike Riordan (Reardon) after another game and, unedited, the words made the player/coach/writer look as if he didn’t know how to spell. A reporter for Boston Record-American, Pat Horne, upset with some non-answers in the locker room after a Knicks game, complained that the coach “probably is saving his best material for his own column (in the Globe.)”
These were the vagaries of the newspaper business. Welcome to the club.