Bill Russell and Arnie Risen play a little game with each other when they meet. Russell crouches by Risen's side, looks up at him through fluttering eyelids and asks in a tone of mingled awe and innocence: "Gee, mister, just how tall are you, really?" Or the question will be: "Gosh, are you a basketball player?" Occasionally, Russell will use the old standby "Can you hear me up there?"—but the answer is always the same, and unprintable.
It is a game, but for Russell and Risen—both 6 feet 9 and teammates on the Boston Celtics professional basketball team—it is also an opportunity to relieve the strain of being polite to the endless number of people who follow them around all day with long, vacant stares and silly questions about their height.
Risen, a gentle, quiet man of 32, plays the game casually and in a low key. Russell gives himself away by the vigor with which he throws himself into the part of the questioner and the loud cackles of glee with which he greets Risen's answers. Bill Russell is desperately sensitive about his height—and about being a Negro. About standing taller than a world of smaller men, and standing out in a world of white men.
At the same time, he is aggressively proud of both. There is a constant warring within him—between the man who wants to run away and hide so no one will ever again call him a goon or insult his race, and the man who glories in the remarkable feats he can accomplish with his long, elastic body and who wears his color like a banner.
He fears both extremes: he ducks out of the most innocent pigeonhole. "I don't want people to stereotype me ever," he says. "You know, they think that every time a colored man goes places, the first thing he does is get himself a Cadillac. I like a Cadillac, I drove'em lots of times. But I wouldn't buy one—you couldn't give me one. I bought my Chrysler last year.... Like you take most people think a tall man always wears clothes too small for him—short in the sleeves, short in the pants, tight in the shoulders and all that jazz.... Not me. You ever see my suits? I get 'em all made special. I get 'em made too big, too long all over...I always try to do things people say I won't do or I can't do."
In his 24 years, Russell has succeeded in doing most of the things he was sure that others felt were impossible, especially on a basketball court. But occasionally he has failed. Just a few months ago he was unable to buy a home in a location of his choice (in Boston, of all places) and settled for a pleasant, modest ranch house in nearby Reading. He lives there now with his pretty, soft-spoken wife Rose, and their 2-month-old son Bill Jr.—easily the most-talked-about athlete in New England and the biggest attraction in the history of professional basketball.
For this complex young man who tries so hard to be different it is apt indeed that fame has come for a reason which never before has stirred the interest of the average fan in most sports, and especially in basketball. Call to mind the truly great ones—the Kurlands, Mikans, Luisettis, Cousys. All drew crowds who came to watch their offensive play. Putting the ball through the hoop, putting it through somehow, is still the most spectacular piece of business on the court. Even today, no official records are kept on the things Russell does better than any man before him, things which few players ever thought of doing. These are acts of defense. They require thought and hard work, as opposed to the exhilarating efforts involved in purely offensive actions. It is the difference between trying to beat the other fellow and trying to keep him from beating you. On the Celtics, Russell concentrates on keeping the opposition from scoring points; his teammates—Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey—will score enough to win if he is reasonably successful.
It is oversimplifying matters to say that Russell succeeds by blocking the opponents' shots at the basket. He does that too, of course, and spectacularly. But hear him:
"Playing good defense takes a lot of practice, sure. But I do a lot of thinking about it too. Look, I can block shots. O.K. If I tried to block all the shots my man takes, I'd be dead. The thing I got to do is make my man think I'm gonna block every shot he takes. How can I do it? O.K., here. Say I block a shot on you. The next time you're gonna shoot, I know I can't block it, but I act exactly the same way as before, I make exactly the same moves. I'm confident. I'm not thinking any more but I got you thinking. You can't think and shoot—nobody can. You're thinking, will he block this one or won't he? I don't even have to try to block it. You'll miss.... Like you take one time back in college, K. C. Jones and I were chasing this guy who had the ball. [Jones was Russell's teammate and close friend on the great San Francisco squad that won 60 straight and two NCAA titles.] We didn't have a chance to catch this guy, but we're chasing him. So K.C. yells over at me, 'I got him!' And I yell back, 'No, I got him!' And the next few steps I take, I hit the floor real hard so it sounds like I'm a lot closer than I really am. We had that guy. We had him thinking. Instead of going in for an easy layup, he tried to get off the shot and get out of our way at the same time. He missed.... Here's something K.C. did to me one day. We're scrimmaging and he's on one team and I'm on the other. I'm bringing the ball up court and he's with me all the way. But I was sure I had him. I looked over at him and I could see he felt I had him too. Then all of a sudden K.C. starts improvising. He starts jumping around and moving one way and another—things I never saw him do before. Now I'm worried. I'm thinking, what's he gonna do next? You know what happened? I got all tangled up and fell down. That's right—one minute I'm sailing along, confident, and the next minute I'm sprawled all over the floor and K.C.'s taken the ball away from me and dribbles down for an easy layup."
Russell's preoccupation with the psychological aspects of basketball brings him to fresh insights not only of his own play but the failings and potentialities of others. For example, most players will talk about Bob Cousy's spectacular techniques, his peripheral vision and phenomenal reflexes when they try to explain his greatness. Not Russell: "You know why he's the greatest? Two reasons. First is his imagination. No matter what the situation is, he'll think of something new to try. He'll try anything. And he'll make it work for the second reason. His confidence. He knows it's going to work.... Some sportswriters say it must be tough to play with Cousy—he does all those wild things, surprises you, fools you and all that jazz. I'll tell you—he's the easiest to play with. You know why? When he passes you the ball, there's always something you can do with it, that's why. Some guys, they pass you the ball and there's nothing you can do with it except pass it back or eat it if you're hungry. When Cousy gives it to you, there's a reason."
Devoted as he is to this game (he was an excellent prospect as a runner and high jumper at San Francisco but gave up track to concentrate on basketball), Russell is obviously pleased as a puppy with a playful little boy at being a part of the major leagues of sport and playing with the likes of Cousy and Sharman. He made up his mind a long time ago that this was what he wanted, but it was hardly evident in his manner when he first came to Boston last year. The Celtics are a close-knit bunch; most of them have played and traveled together for a long time. In the heat of day-in day-out competition during which they depend greatly on each other, in the mutual frustration of defeats and the exhilaration of victories, strong friendships have grown up. And, most important, pride of teamship—something few fans appreciate about professional athletes—surrounds them like the unspoken affection at a family reunion. Into this group came the much-heralded Russell, on a tidal wave of nationwide publicity following his triumphs at San Francisco and with the Olympic basketball team in Melbourne. On the front pages of the Boston papers he was a conquering hero before he played his first game; nearly all predicted he would bring the Celtics their first championship after the years of bitter playoff defeats. If Russell detected a feeling of "O.K., now show us" on the part of some members of the squad, it is just as true that he antagonized many of the veterans by little things like showing up late for practice and a general air of cockiness which they mistook for conceit. It is a credit to all concerned that the situation never got any worse than this and quickly got better.
Most of the Celtics know what Russell turned down to play with them—more than twice the excellent salary he is now earning. But few people anywhere know the real reason. He hasn't told it before this.
Despite the clowning he would occasionally indulge in at college, Russell has always been serious about basketball. So he never really thought much of the idea of playing with the all-Negro Globetrotters troupe, whose performances he considers more vaudeville than sport—as do most other athletes, of course.
But when stories began to appear naming figures like $50,000 as the price Abe Saperstein, the Globetrotters' owner, was prepared to pay for his services, Russell began to get interested. Then: "Saperstein came to see me and my coach, Phil Woolpert. He just said hello and goodby to me. All the time he was there he talked to Wool-pert. He told Woolpert what he could do for me and how much money I'd make and all that jazz. He never said a word to me. He treated me like some kind of idiot who couldn't understand what the conversation was all about. I made up my mind right then that I'd never play for him...."
Russell adds, not in an effort to be fair, but simply as a matter of fact: "I'll say this—it was a good thing for me and it's a good thing for other Negro basketball players. When the Globetrotters bid for you, it helps you get a better deal with the pros."
It is too much to say that Russell did bring the Celtics their first NBA championship last season. (He played in 48 of 72 games, after returning from Melbourne.) Basketball is a team game; Cousy and Sharman are the finest backcourt combination this league has ever seen; Heinsohn won Rookie of the Year honors last year for a string of crackling performances; Jim Loscutoff, Ramsey, Risen, Andy Phillip, Jack Nichols and Coach Red Auerbach all contributed mightily. But if Russell didn't bring the title, he made it possible. Cousy puts it this way: "We play a fast-break attack, which doesn't mean a thing unless you can get the ball off the boards. In the past, people would say we had the potential and they wondered why we didn't win more games. Sure, we had the potential, but we didn't have the ball. Now Russell gets it for us. We get the ball more often and we win more often. It's that simple."
Russell gets the ball for the Celtics by rebounding better than anyone ever has. Last year he led the league with an average of 19.6 per game; thus far this year he is more than 160 rebounds ahead of his closest competitor, Bob Pettit, and has set an incredible single-game mark of 49.
For most players, rebounding requires mastering two essentials: position and timing. They must get to the right spot under the backboard and they must leap at the precise moment to meet the ball ahead of rival players. Because of his great spring (he once high-jumped 6 feet 9¼ inches in college after a minimum of practice) Russell can come close to ignoring position. He will often go up from a spot far from a knot of other players, go over their outstretched hands and come down with the ball. "One other thing," he says, "that few people notice. I've got a pair of long arms. I remember one time I posed for a gag picture with Swede Halbrook. He's 7 foot 3, you know—more than five inches taller than I am. He held the ball as high as he could over his head and I stood next to him and reached up. My hands were on that ball. Don't think that's not a help in rebounding."
Working on offense
It became fashionable last year to concede Russell his defensive and rebounding skills and laugh at his efforts to put the ball through the hoop. He finished the season with a 14.7 average—far below the leaders—and the worst free-throw percentage on his team. The reason is simple: he has always worked far more on defense than offense; indeed, he spent very little time even facing the basket, except when dunking the ball. But the fashion is due for a change. Russell has been thinking. ("I spent a lot of time last summer thinking about my shooting.") He has also been practicing with and taking lessons from Sharman, a student of the shooting art and one of the best in the game. Sharman noted early that one of Russell's biggest faults was his failure to get set before his free throws. He also taught Russell how to put adequate backspin on the ball without losing control and to roll it off his fingertips instead of pushing it from his palm, which is another common error. The thinking and teaching have paid off, swiftly. At the end of the first 12 weeks of this season—after 34 games—Russell led the league in field-goal accuracy at 46.4%. He was 13th in total points with a 19.0 per-game average and was sinking better than half of his free throws. There can hardly be any doubt that he will shortly be as intimidating a force on offense as he always has been on defense. There is certainly no doubt about this in Russell's mind. He is, among other things, a collector of albums of Broadway musical plays and his favorite is Kismet, because of a song in it called The Olive Tree, one of whose lines goes: "Why be content with an olive/When you could have the tree—/Why be content to be nothing When there's nothing you couldn't be!"
"There's a message in there," Russell says. "You can do anything you set your mind to." He believes it.
A thinking man, Bill Russell—one who will make many mistakes, certainly. But also one who will seldom be caught napping. If you play basketball, you would be fortunate to have him on your team; if you don't, you will derive much pleasure from watching him play. And if basketball bores you, you might be most fortunate of all just to have him for a friend.