Steve Rudman on the former NBA great who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom
President Barack Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, on 15 individuals Tuesday, including Bill Russell, a basketball Hall of Famer, the first African-American head coach of a major professional sports franchise, a former coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, and a long-time Mercer Island resident.
According to The White House, the award recognizes individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
The first person from the NBA to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3YGfKm1pJo), Russell had a front-row seat for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in 1963, and became a prominent voice among athletes during the Civil Rights Movement. Bill Russell marched with King, and he supported Muhammad Ali when Ali was on the outs with the U.S. government.
“It’s very flattering because I’ve tried to live my life doing what I think is right and for the right reasons and one of the reasons was never to get accolades or honors,” Russell told CNN Monday.
“I think this is wonderful for Bill,” said Bob Walsh, who worked as assistant general manager under Russell when the basketball icon served as general manager and coach of the SuperSonics (1973-77). “As his life-long friend, I am really proud of his accomplishments.”
Russell’s athletic accomplishments are the fodder of legend. After leading the United States to a gold medal at the 1956 Olympic Games, Russell became the cornerstone of a Boston Celtics dynasty, leading the franchise to 11 world titles in a 13-year span (1957, ’59, ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’68, ’69). He was named NBA MVP five times (1958, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’65), All-NBA First Team three times (1959, ’63, ’65), and an All-Star 12 times. He entered the NBA Hall of Fame in 1975.
Russell not only reigned as the greatest team player in the history of the NBA, he transformed the way basketball was played and revised forever how it would be taught.
The conventional — and misguided — wisdom in the 1950s, and for a long time afterward, held that black players lacked intelligence. They could run and jump, but were erratic and couldn’t grasp fundamentals. Supposedly, only white players possessed the mental acuity to understand how to play, but they couldn’t run or jump like the black players. Russell brought the entire package.
After several coaches watched him play in the 1955 NCAA Tournament, they hastily adopted “Russell’s Rules”, widening the free throw lane to 12 feet and making it illegal for a player to touch the ball on its downward arc to the basket. Dartmouth coach Doggie Julian, a member of the Rules Committee, later wrote, “We weren’t planning to make any changes. But after some of the coaches saw Russell play, they got scared.”
Russell, who moved from Louisiana to California as a youngster, couldn’t even make his Oakland high school team in his sophomore year and rose to only third-string as a junior. But his coordination improved, he grew to 6-7 and then to 6-10 by the time he enrolled at the University of San Francisco. Fifty-five consecutive victories and two NCAA titles later, Russell brought a game to the NBA that his contemporaries found almost beyond imagination.
His first appearance with the Celtics occurred on Dec. 22, 1956, against the St. Louis Hawks. Russell played just 16 minutes, but snatched 21 rebounds. A couple of days later, he held Neil Johnston of the Philadelphia Warriors, the NBA’s third-leading scorer, without a field goal for the first 42 minutes while also pulling down 18 rebounds. The very next evening, again playing against the Warriors, Russell grabbed 34 rebounds in 20 minutes.
Russell’s unique gifts brought entire rows of people off their seats, and no one, with the possible exception of Red Auerbach, expected it. No one expected Russell to change the tempo of every game he played, but he did. No one knew what a great athlete Russell was, how refined his timing was, how incredible his anticipation was. The tape measure had failed to detect those things, much less provide a clue as to the true size of Russell’s heart.
Russell had arrived as something completely new, the forerunner of the kind of player who wouldn’t appear en masse for two more decades. Even Wilt Chamberlain’s entrance into the league couldn’t detract from Russell’s genius.
Although Chamberlain had a three-inch height advantage and 50 pounds on Russell, Russell beat up Chamberlain in the one place Chamberlain was vulnerable: his mind. Lew Alcindor, who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, watched Russell with a reverential eye as a kid growing up in New York City. Bill Walton considered Russell his all-time favorite player. Russell didn’t know it, but emerging young centers all over America emulated his game, and he was idolized in places he didn’t know existed.
Long before television spread through Europe and the former Soviet Union, the Voice of America carried broadcasts of the 1956 Olympics and, later on, Boston Celtic games. Little kids locked behind the Iron Curtain talked about and imitated Russell, fascinated by his matchups with Chamberlain and in awe of what Russell could do, which must have seemed to be anything he wanted.
Sometimes, he would block three or four shots in a row from different players. He once blocked a Chamberlain fadeaway jumper. Nate Thurmond, who stood 6-11, quickly retrieved the ball and tried to dunk. Russell blocked Thurmond’s dunk.
No other player matched Russell’s command over the area of the floor and sky around the opponent’s basket. He had no time for anything less than all-out commitment to team play and little use for anyone who would not make a contribution. Fourteen times in Russell’s career — college, Olympics, and the NBA — it all came down to one game, and 14 times the team with Russell won. Russell averaged 18 points and nearly 30 rebounds in those games.
Russell dominated regular-season games, entire regular seasons, and all postseasons for more than a decade without ever having to score a basket. Because he understood positioning, angles and movements, and all the barely visible elements of the game, he became the first player in NBA history to help generate his team’s offense from his own defense.
Because he studied shooters and their shots, he knew when each player was going to release, what type of shot that player had, and where he had to be to block it. And if the didn’t block it, he knew where balls would come off the rim, enabling him to collect thousands of rebounds. Russell averaged 22.5 rebounds over the course of his career, many of them a direct result of his anticipation. But more than anything, Russell burned with a desire to win that went unmatched until Michael Jordan arrived in the NBA a quarter of a century later.
In the seventh game of the 1962 NBA Finals against the Lakers, Russell scored 30 points and snatched 40 rebounds, a monumental statistical achievement Russell simply ignored. After the game, he got dressed and went home. The next morning, he and his wife drove to Maine for a vacation. Russell hadn’t looked at the box score, never saw the newspapers, and did not find out for 35 years that he was still the only player in league history with a 30-point, 40-rebound playoff game, and still held the playoff record for most rebounds in a single quarter at 19.
“All I knew,” Russell said later, “was that we won by two points.”
As a player, Russell did not study statistics, glancing at them only once a month or so. He did not find them meaningful. Only pride and effort had meaning, which was why Russell became the consistent difference in transforming a series of great Boston teams into the sporting dynasty of the 20th century.
While Russell’s performances would become legendary, the Russell persona often left a glacial chill with the Boston press and Celtics fans. To those who did not know him, he seemed distant and unapproachable, a man who harbored a festering anger. Cobble that to the Russell scowl and the picture developed into one of looming intimidation. But the Boston press and Celtic fans had not been the subjects of ugly racial epithets as Russell had. Nor had they had their homes vandalized as Russell had. Boston named a major tunnel through the city after a Russell contemporary, Ted Williams. It named nothing after the foundation of the Celtics.
In his final days with the Celtics, the only interviews he gave were the mandatory ones after ball games. Otherwise, speaking for public consumption did not interest him unless he felt he had something to say.
He would not subject himself to a question and answer period; that would put him in the position of saying something over which he had no control. Reporters could shade his answers to the left or right, for or against, depending on their whim, ignorance, clumsiness, or bias. And no matter what he said, half the people would agree with him and half would disagree. Russell found it a useless exercise.
Years later, and despite having been a talk show host himself (KABC, Los Angeles, where the aforementioned Walsh served as program director), he wouldn’t appear on talk shows. They had, he felt, degenerated into back-and-forth, full-volume mindlessness, and Russell would not expose himself to any situation in which people might treat him with disrespect. Nor would he willingly put himself in a situation where he would be forced to insult another person.
Since he harbored a strong distaste for hero worship, he refused to sign autographs, even extending the ban to his own Celtic teammates. Russell’s anti-interview and anti-autograph policies became two of his least-understood convictions in a vast spectrum of behaviors comprehensible only to him.
When officials at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame decided to induct Russell, he bypassed the ceremony. The Celtics told Russell they wanted to retire his jersey No. 6. Russell told the Celtics he didn’t want a public tribute and made the Celtics lock the doors. He had his own reasons for what he did and didn’t do, and it was nobody’s business. From this side of the facade, Russell presented a fascinating amalgam: the paramount team player and the quintessential lone wolf, a genius in group dynamics and the ultimate solo artist.
Following the 1959 NBA season, Russell traveled to Africa on a State Department tour to teach basketball fundamentals to any kids who wanted to learn (four years later, in 1963, he would teach basketball to a group of integrated kids in Jackson, MS). Russell got a tiny projector, rounded up 200 basketballs, bought a plane ticket and took off. He ventured to Libya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Senegal.
“I didn’t care if any of the kids spoke English,” Russell observed later. “Where basketball and kids are concerned, there is no such thing as a language barrier.”
Russell stopped first in Tripoli, where a press conference had been arranged. Russell had been warned to be careful. Communist writers would be present; they might try to embarrass the United States. The first question came from a Communist writer.
“What is your real reason for coming to Libya?” he asked.
Russell responded that it was because he wanted to share the joy of a game he had loved since he was nine years old.
“You don’t have to be great to have fun playing basketball,” Russell said. “You don’t even have to be good. You just have to want to play.”
“What’s the name of the king (of Libya)?” another Communist writer asked.
“I don’t know the king’s name,” Russell replied.
“How can you come here and say you want to be the friend of the Libyan people and you don’t even know the king’s name?”
“Because it doesn’t interest me,” said Russell. “I’m not here to be a politician or a diplomat. I’m here to teach basketball. And that has nothing to do with a king. And your politics I don’t care about.”
Russell doesn’t allow many to crash his personal universe. Years ago, when he played for the Celtics, he opened the door for Bob Walsh, then a radio producer at WNAC, the first radio station that presented a talk show format. Bob talked Russell into going on the air; Russell responded by giving Bob one of the few autographs he ever distributed.
Later, after Bob became program director at KABC in Los Angeles, he hired Russell as a drive-time host to boost sagging ratings. Russell took KABC to No. 1 in the market in seven weeks. After some time, Russell accepted an offer from Sam Schulman to become general manager and head coach of the SuperSonics. Russell’s only stipulation: He had to bring Bob Walsh along, or no deal.
Russell worked for Schulman for four years, coaching Seattle’s first-ever playoff team. Little known about his basketball legacy here: He formed the core of what would become an NBA Championship team in 1979.
Through Walsh’s efforts, I ventured into Bill Russell’s universe once. Alone with the legend on the eighth floor of a Seattle office building about a decade ago, and having no idea of what to expect, a deadpan Russell told me he would halt the interview and leave if I asked any question that offended him. He said I had 30 minutes, kindly omitting the “or else.”
Three hours later, I had discovered Russell to be witty, intellectually curious and possessed of a fabulous sense of humor and near-photographic memory (he could recite the starting lineups of college teams he played against). He answered every question — and elaborated — and also asked questions.
When I spoke with Walsh the other evening about Russell receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I asked Bob why he thought Obama selected him.
“There are probably a lot of reasons,” Bob said. “He’s done so many great things on and off the court. But I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he got the medal just because Barack Obama wanted to meet him.”
2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom Winners
Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Congressman John Lewis, politician John H. Adams, author, actress and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, investor Warren Buffett, artist Jasper Johns, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein, humanitarian Dr. Tom Little, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez, Baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial, arts patron Jean Kennedy Smith and former AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney.
Athletes/Coaches Who Have Won the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Hank Aaron (2002), Muhammad Ali (2005), Arthur Ashe (1993, posthumously), Earl Blaik (1986, Paul “Bear” Bryant (1983, posthumously), Roberto Clemente (2003, posthumously), Joe DiMaggio (1977), Billie Jean King (2009), Robert J. H. Kiphuth (1963), Stan Musial (2011), Jack Nicklaus (2005), Buck O’Neil (2006), Jesse Owens (1977), Arnold Palmer (2004), Richard Petty (1992), Frank Robinson (2005) Jackie Robinson (1984, posthumously), Bill Russell (2011), Ted Williams (1991), John Wooden (2003).