The man whose appearance on the cover this week signalizes the return of pro basketball is someone who could pose as a practicing psychologist anywhere. Or so Boston's Bill Russell insists, referring to his academic-looking spade beard, well-cut business suit and narrow, dark tie. "And I carry the briefcase, too," says Russell. "Even if it is not full of textbooky things. Mine always contains a badly crinkled basketball uniform, some sweat socks and a pair of pretty big sneakers." The other difference, he adds with obvious satisfaction, is that "I don't work for psychology like those other fellas. Psychology works for me."
Well put. In his career as one of basketball's greatest centers, Russell has used his own special mix of size, talent, stamina, instinct—and psychology—to dominate the game. And when SPORTS ILLUSTRATED asked Russell to do an informal thesis on How I Psych Them, for openers Russell promptly psyched Associate Editor Bob Ottum.
Ottum often moves in a world of big people. Two seasons ago he did a cover story on Tommy Heinsohn, and last April he collaborated with Philadelphia's Wilt Chamberlain on a two-part story about life inside a giant. So it wasn't the size that got him. "But Russell never sits still," Ottum said after the first week of interviews-on-the-run. "In the evening he plays basketball. Then he sunlights by managing his Boston restaurant: he is writing a book, landscaping his new home, promoting his own new brand of sneakers and testing foreign sports cars. You ever try to take notes at 115 miles an hour? Every time we tried to talk, he faked me out."
Finally, spooked by an approaching deadline, Ottum used what Russell calls his First Law (page 33). "I cornered him in his hotel room one midnight when he was most tired," says Ottum. "I locked the door and took the phone off the hook. We worked all through the night. Russell talked, demonstrated by shooting wadded paper into the wastebasket, and we ran a few sample plays in that small space—Ottum defending against Russell." About 3 a.m. Russell sent out (to his own restaurant) for a gigantic platter of barbecued ribs. "The greasy part of the manuscript," notes Ottum, "is where we ate." By dawn both were exhausted. But the deadline was met.
October 24, 1965
In matters of deadline our world of publishing and Russell's world of playing form a parallel: When SPORTS ILLUSTRATED first appeared in August 1954 Russell was appearing as the player to watch in his junior year at the University of San Francisco. In the years since, eight writers have covered Russell, starting with a story on the NCAA finals in Kansas City in March of 1955 (and including his marriage to Rose Swisher after the Melbourne Olympics). Of those eight Frank Deford, at 6 feet 4, is the only one almost tall enough to look Russell in the eye.
Incidentally, Russell celebrated the completion of this latest story by buying one of the foreign cars he was testing. He found the $14,500 Ferrari too small, though it fitted Ottum fine, and instead bought an awesome white Mercedes 220 SE convertible. Which certainly ought to psych everybody on those highways around Boston.