In collaboration with Taylor Branch, Bill Russell has written an autobiography that goes well beyond the customary bounds of the as-told-to sports story. It's called Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man (Random House, $9.95), and it is every bit as outspoken as its subtitle suggests, touching not only on Russell's celebrated career as basketball player and coach, but also on subjects ranging from Vietnam to race to sex to TV.
Russell, who's 6'9", thinks of himself as a misfit. "Not only am I tall enough to make a lot of people uncomfortable," he writes, "but I am also black, and infamous as an athlete. No wonder I have my quirks." Bluntness, it's clear, is one of them. Anyone who was listening back when he was the best TV sports announcer around is well aware of that. Say whatever you will of Russell, but also say of him that he always speaks his mind.
There is, of course, danger in being this way. The opinionated man can often be merely noisy and boring; for instance, what Russell has to say about Vietnam is approximately as informed and useful as what Joan Baez has to say about Vietnam. But when he is on home territory—when his subject is basketball or race—his is a voice of experience that merits a respectful hearing.
Russell's account of his development as a basketball player is particularly revealing. He was not a "natural." His talents were not evident when he was a boy; indeed, it wasn't until after high school that he began to evince, "accidentally" he says, the defensive skills that a few years later would become the foundation of the Boston Celtic dynasty and gain him recognition as the game's best player. He reached that pinnacle through hard work, determination, a singular comprehension of the subtleties of his chosen sport, and a refreshing enthusiasm for the game that, this book shows, he retains.
October 7, 1979
"People in all kinds of cultures are known to 'jump for joy' in moments of supreme happiness. Jumping is an internationally recognized expression of joy, and basketball is a sport organized around jumping. Most of the time people jump spontaneously after something makes them happy.... In basketball, the jumping comes first. It's possible for a player to jump because he's happy, but it's more likely that he's happy because he's jumping."
Russell was happiest and most fulfilled as an athlete during the years he played for the Celtics. He writes about those years with palpable warmth. He recalls the team's humor and closeness with affection but without a trace of sentimentality. He pays touching tribute to Walter Brown, the man who then owned the Celtics, and to his teammates. He writes far more flatteringly about Wilt Chamberlain than sports-page reports of their rivalry would lead one to expect, and he describes Oscar Robertson with unstinting admiration: "He had a joy and ferociousness that nobody else could match."
Indeed, it is this quality of joy that surfaces over and again in the basketball sections of this memoir. Most games were routine, and Russell played them accordingly, but there were other moments that he reveled in:
"Every so often a Celtic game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical. That feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened I could feel my play rise to a new level. It came rarely, and would last anywhere from five minutes to a whole quarter or more. Three or four plays were not enough to get it going. It would surround not only me and the other Celtics but also the players on the other team, and even the referees. To me, the key was that both teams had to be playing at their peaks, and they had to be competitive. The Celtics could not do it alone."
Of all Russell's qualities as a player, perhaps his greatest was his insatiable thirst for excellence. He pushed himself as far as he could go and still was dissatisfied; he writes that he regularly graded his performances and that "the best score I ever gave myself was 65 on a scale of 100." Inasmuch as those of us in the stands would happily have granted him a 98 or 99 or 100, his own harsh evaluation is evidence enough of the compulsion for perfection that drove his heart, mind and body to the outer limits.
That same compulsion has characterized his life off the court. He is a combatively proud black man, who for much of his life felt "grounded in anger" against whites and has only gradually allowed that anger to subside. He writes with deep and legitimate resentment about "white cultural bias." He also writes about how the San Francisco coffeehouses of the fifties began to reshape his thinking: "...those coffeehouses showed me that whites were capable of protest and sadness too. It was a breakthrough for me, because since childhood I had seen them as distant, cold and oppressive."
In this respect, Russell's story is not one of a uniquely successful athlete but of a black American who made the stormy and painful passage from hatred to understanding—a story that finds echoes in the lives of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver and James Baldwin. This, as Russell well understands, is the story that really counts. Warts and all, he is a fine man, and he has written a fine book.