Q&A with Celtics legend Bill Russell
One of the perks of being the captain was you had a room by yourself -- in those days, you always had roommates. So Red and I on the road would play gin until 3 or 4 in the morning. We talked about all aspects of life and our profession. Mostly, we saw two different games. I saw it from the center position. He saw it from the bench. In my book, I wrote that when I got to Boston as a rookie, Red and I had some confrontation. Not that this has anything to do with Sportsman, but I did not get along with my college coach [Phil Woolper]. He didn't think I was very good even after we won a couple of championships.
Well, I was jumping and blocking shots and I was leaving my feet. I blocked some shots my first game and during a timeout he told me: "You can't play defense like that." I said, "But I just blocked five shots in a row. He said, "Well, that's not the way you play defense." He showed me the way he learned to play defense and I vehemently disagreed with that.
What Red said after I got to the Celtics -- and he told me this about a month before the season ended -- was, "You know, you are good. Do you know how good you are? I said, "Yeah, I know." He said, "Well, I know you are a good but I have to confess I do not know what you are doing. But it works and I am not going to mess with it. I am going to watch you and see what you do it and how you do it and make this a part of my system."
I was talking to Kobe Bryant during the basketball game at the White House recently. Now, I find Kobe a very interesting guy. When I talked to him, I talk to him like he is an Italian. He grew up in Rome so all the cultural things that he grew up with, most people here do not acknowledge. I always say, "How is my little Italian friend?" But what we talked about was something I wrote in my book a couple of years ago. When I arrived in Boston, the first thing I did was to scout my teammates. It was irrelevant how good or bad they were. It was what did they do, and how did they do it and how do you put them in the best situations? A lot of my contribution to the team was learning how to be invisible.
They named the MVP playoff trophy the Bill Russell Trophy, which I agreed to. Most of the time, I don't have any time for those individual honors. What I'd always say was, "I want to thank my teammates for letting me help them do their best."
I'll give you an example: In my second year, the players voted for the MVP and the players voted me the MVP by a wide margin. But at the same time, the writers picked the all-league team. So I have the honorable distinction of being the MVP of the league and a second-team all-league pick [laughs].
To show you it was deliberate, a couple of years later, Wilt Chamberlain came into the league, and they changed the voting his rookie year. Before they used to take the five best players, but when Wilt came in, they changed the rules to pick by position. There never could be a time when Wilt and I were first-team all-league. I don't think they considered whether Wilt or I noticed that, or if we did notice it, well, f--- us. I came to the conclusion that there are very few people who can insult me no matter what they say. But also there are very few people who can honor me. There were a couple of guys who even said I was not the best player on the Celtics, then they put me into the Hall of Fame. Well, I didn't accept your opinion before and I am not going to accept it now.