Since 1943, when I first saw a basketball, I've played approximately 3,000 games, organized and otherwise. I think that's enough.
I'm a pretty direct man. You say something I like, I'll tell you so; you say something I don't like, I'll tell you also. A diplomat I'm not. So I'll tell you right out that there are no secret or hidden or financial or philosophical reasons behind this. I just don't feel like playing anymore. As for coaching—that prime incubator of ulcers—no, thank you. I don't want to coach anymore, either. I never considered myself primarily a coach, anyway. Anytime I was ever around a group of coaches I'd feel nervous—all that nonsense about how to "handle" kids, how to "motivate" them! I was a player. Now I'm not a player or a coach anymore.
If you're really looking for a reason why I feel I've played enough, I'll tell you this. There are professionals and there are mercenaries in sports. The difference between them is that the professional is involved. I was never a mercenary. If I continued to play, I'd become a mercenary because I'm not involved anymore.
I have a year to go on my contract with the Celtics. It's one of the most lucrative in sports, and I was very happy with it. A couple of my friends think I should at least stick out that year because of the money. Believe me, I wouldn't mind having all that money. But I'm not going to play basketball for money. I've been paid to play, of course, but I played for a lot of other reasons, too.
August 3, 1969
I played because I enjoyed it—but there's more to it than that. I played because I was dedicated to being the best. I was part of a team, and I dedicated myself to making that team the best. To me, one of the most beautiful things to see is a group of men coordinating their efforts toward a common goal—alternately subordinating and asserting themselves to achieve real teamwork in action. I tried to do that—we all tried to do that—on the Celtics. I think we succeeded. Often, in my mind's eye, I stood off and watched that effort. I found it beautiful to watch. It's just as beautiful to watch in things other than sports.
Being part of that effort on the Celtics was very important to me. It helped me develop and grow, and I think it has helped prepare me for something other than playing basketball. But so far as the game is concerned, I've lost my competitive urges. If I went out to play now, the other guys would know I didn't really care. That's no way to play—it's no way to do anything.
All during this past season I had the eerie feeling that I'd been through this before. Every play, every situation. Setting a screen, missing a shot—I'd seen or done it all before. Everything had become repetition. This is not the attitude to bring to still another season.
Basketball is the most demanding sport we've invented. It demands speed and stamina and a lot of other physical and mental qualities. It also demands tolerance of pain. Hurting is part of professional basketball. You get banged around, you lose your teeth, you twist muscles, you break bones. I'm not crying about this, just stating facts. Some people have said I would stop playing one day because my knees hurt. Well, they hurt. They've been hurting for 10 years, and my ankle has been hurting ever since I broke it in 1958. But I'll tell you this—the rest of the guys in the NBA would laugh if I said I was leaving because my knees hurt. I don't know a player in the league who doesn't hurt somewhere practically the whole long season. Earl Monroe is only 24 and his knees are as bad as mine. What about Elgin Baylor? Or Nate Thurmond? I could go on and on. Hurting is as much a part of the game as shooting free throws. I'm not leaving because I hurt.
I'm not mad at anybody, either. I'm not mad at any of the players, and I'm not mad at Jack Kent Cooke and his balloons. I'm not even mad at Mendy Rudolph. I'm not trying to get even with somebody, or anything like that. Sure, there are things about the game I don't like, but it would be a lot easier to do something about them—which I've tried—if I went on playing. I'm not leaving because I'm angry.
You might think that it's very nice for me to be leaving a winner. Truthfully, that had nothing to do with my decision. Still, winning the championship this year was one of the most rewarding victories of my career, especially because we weren't expected to win. (SPORTS ILLUSTRATED wasn't the only one to give up on the Celtics this year—hah!) And it's not that I think this year's team was our best, either. As a matter of fact, I think our 1963-64 team was the best [Sanders, K. C. Jones, Heinsohn, Ramsey, Sam Jones, Havlicek, Russell]. It was easily the best defensive team we ever had—maybe that's why it's my favorite—and maybe the best of all time. I rate it best despite the fact that it was only good offensively, not great. Maybe that's the key to it. We knew our offensive shortcomings and we worked hard to overcome them.
People didn't give us credit for being as good as we were last season. Personally, I think we won because we had the best team in the league. Some guys talked about all the stars on the other teams, and they quote statistics to show other teams were better. Let's talk about statistics. The important statistics in basketball are supposed to be points scored, rebounds and assists. But nobody keeps statistics on other important things—the good fake you make that helps your teammate score; the bad pass you force the other team to make; the good long pass you make that sets up another pass that sets up another pass that leads to a score; the way you recognize when one of your teammates has a hot hand that night and you give up your own shot so he can take it. All of those things. Those were some of the things we excelled in that you won't find in the statistics. There was only one statistic that was important to us—won and lost.
Something everybody else but Bill Russell excelled in was giving the coach good advice. I made the decisions, but I listened an awful lot. Sometimes in practice the other guys would talk for half an hour and I wouldn't say a word. I encouraged them to tell me what they thought. You take Siegfried—he's a flake all right, but he's got one of the best basketball minds in the game. They all helped—Sam, Bailey, Nelson, all of them. They knew I respected them as men with ideas, that I didn't treat them as just guys with numbers on their backs. Remember that last-second shot that Sam took to win the fourth playoff game? Well, Sam is a great shooter, but that was a real cooperative effort. We wanted a play that would help us win the kind of close games we were getting involved in, and we started with what was basically an old Ohio State play. Probably either Siegfried or Havlicek brought it up. The first time we tried it in practice, it took 13 seconds. We worked it down to seven. All five players have to make perfectly timed moves and fakes, and the passes have to be exact. It saved us in that fourth game.
Nobody can write a story about the Celtics and not talk about Red Auerbach. Much of my success as a professional is a result of the way he first approached me. A lot of guys said I'd never make it because I couldn't shoot. My first day with Red he told me right out that he didn't care if I never scored a point. He said they had the guys on the Celtics who could score. What he wanted from me was defense and rebounding. That suited me fine. He and I had one big thing in common—the will to win. When he appointed me coach he just said. "The job is yours." He never put pressure on me. He never even came to practice unless I invited him. Of course, I did—often. I would have been crazy not to take advantage of one of the smartest guys the game has seen. In moments of weakness, I almost like Red—a little.
Well, I'm going to miss all that, even if I no longer feel involved. And what am I going to do? As I write this article I'm enjoying the luxury of taking my time in considering some interesting alternatives that I am fortunate enough to have available. Up to now, I've been a professional entertainer, which is how a professional athlete probably should b classified. One natural path for me to follow would be to continue in the field of entertainment—motion pictures or TV. I've made a few films out in California, and I've enjoyed it. I'm leaving in a few weeks to make a movie in Spain—it's a western in which I've got a small part—and I expect to enjoy that, too. I may do some other film work with Jim Brown. But I can't see acting as a career, even if it is fun, and my decision to explore other areas of the entertainment field will be a considered one. I will have weighed against it serious offers in fields that are somewhat new to me but which I would find comfortable, challenging and rewarding.
I can tell you one thing for sure—I'm going to play a little golf. I'm going to become the hottest 6'9" black left-handed 16-handicap golfer to come along in years. So if you see a tall, handsome, bearded fellow on your course some day, who looks as though he's ready to laugh—probably at himself—as he faces an impossible putt, let me tell you this: for your own good, don't put any money on that putt.