BY Steve Rudman 08:49AM 02/15/2011

Bill Russell: The genius in our midst

Steve Rudman on the former NBA great who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bill Russell on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. / Getty Images

Steve Rudman

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 (, 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).


  • David Eskenazi

    Illuminating piece on Bill Russell, Steve. Really enjoyable!

    • Steve Rudman

      David: You the man.

  • Lucky Infidel

    Quality writing. The chairs in that 8th Floor Conference room are not bad, are they?

  • SeattleNative

    Great piece, real enjoyable read. Keep ‘em coming Ruds! Clearly, Russ left his imprint on the Soops. I often wonder what Sam must think about it now. Sad…very sad.

  • Alan Smythe

    I have observed Mr. Russell refuse to give autographs and would say he was kind in his refusal. reat piece that explains the ‘why’ of this stand on autographs. The game has deteriorated to individual play and false hero worship since that era. It was wonderful to watch him play and coach.

  • Susan Phinney

    Steve — a fabulous portrait of a very private person. I didn’t know until recently that Mr. Russell still lives on Mercer Island. Talk about a low profile here…

    • Steve Rudman

      Thanks so much Susan

  • Guest

    pot calling the kettle black here.  too funny

  • Cstrap

    Sark is the biggest scum/douche bag recruiter in the Pac-12.  I hope he chokes in his own vomit.

    • Artthiel

      There’s much competition for such condemnation. The desperation to win will force even the best to ends they never dreamed of.

  • Tom

    Reading the comments from the Cal fans in this thread is very amusing. Thanks for the entertainment.

  • HunterGatherer

    It’s a total mess and Sark is right on.

    College football needs a stipulation that says if you announce, you have to sign on the spot.

    • Artthiel

      An earlier signing date might help, but it also can create the the same problem earlier.  It’s a tweak, not a solution.

  • Soggyblogger

    I agree: Though college football is big, it’s not nearly as big or powerful as the right of free speech or the internet. There is nothing to be done. Since no one can change it, we must change ourselves and learn to live with it. I suggest Sarkisian write an informative essay to hand out to all of his potential recruits advising them to trust nothing they read on the internet. Then get on with life. The good of the internet far outweighs the bad. Nothing comes without a price. 

  • Linder

    Another great Cameron moment came when Lou walked out to talk to Cameron on 1st during the Chicago series in 2000. Supposedly said something about buying Cisco but he was giving him tips about stealing. Lots of great lines in the is article about that game:

  • RadioGuy

    I can remember the great skepticism when Cameron came in from the Reds to replace Griffey.  Even though he was never the batter Junior was (who was?), Cammy was at least as good a fielder (and didn’t dog it after balls the way Griffey would sometimes), was a good baserunner and a MUCH nicer guy with the fans and in the clubhouse.

    I’d like to see Mike Cameron back with the M’s in some capacity, even in the broadcast booth (he couldn’t possibly be as boring a commentator as the cadre of ex-M’s they have now).

  • Gordon

    All the best to Mike Cameron in his future.  We loved him here is Seattle, but we all died a little with each strike out at the plate.  But he was a very good player and an even better person.  All the best!

  • Burnabybound

    Mullan plays for the Colorado Rockies?

    • Artthiel

       40 lashes (with a scarf, please) for my error.

  • Unforgiven

    Art, first day covering this story?  Mullan didn’t try a clean tackle.  He was upset for a non-call moments earlier and took out his frustrations on Steve’s career.  Until he is willing to come clean on what he did and why he did it there really isn’t a reason to forgive him.  How can you forgive somebody who won’t admit what he did wrong?

  • RadioGuy

    Sorry, Art, I’m not with you on this one.  Mullan’s tackle on Zakuani was arguably the cheapest shot taken against a Seattle soccer player since San Jose’s Gonzalo Perez did the same thing to Pepe Hernandez in 1974 at a time when Pepe was playing terrific soccer and becoming a local folk hero…he was never close to the same player after he came back.

    Tackling is a part of soccer, including hard tackles.  But doing so with the intent to injure a player and threaten his livelihood?  I can’t condone it.

  • Larry B.

    To anybody who was watching that game, Mullan’s excuse for the postgame comments, “I didn’t yet know the extent of his injuries” does not ring true.  I heard the crack of Zak’s bones breaking on the TV, for goodness sake!.  I saw the look of absolute horror on Mauro Rosales’ face when he was trying to comfort Zak.  Everybody in that stadium or watching on TV knew immediately that this was a terrible injury. But Mullan, they guy who was closest to Zak when it happened, didn’t realize what he had done?  Give me a break!  I feel for the guy because he has to live with what he did, knowing that he did it in anger after thinking he got fouled moments before.  But I would be much more inclined to forgive him if he didn’t make excuses for his actions.

    • Hammtime

      Art, I agree with Larry. The extent of the injury was obvious immediately. I too was watching it and the sound…oh…that sickening sound and to see the leg flop as Zak’s momentum slowed. ugh….it makes me ill to picture it again. For Mullan to say he had no idea is either complete B.S.

      I get it. Maybe it was out of character for Mullan. But still, such reckless play can’t be tolerated. We still don’t know if Zak will ever be the same.

  • E.

    This piece inaccurately simplifies the issues in order to reach an artificially noble point of view. As others have mentioned, Mullan’s actions had vicious intent that had more to do with retribution than with an attempt to gain possession. It was not motivated by the context of the sport but by the context of revenge. I appreciate when folks try to take the high road at times, but part of being just and fair also involves recognizing when vicious behavior occurred and responding to it with commensurate outrage. This is less about fans reacting like mindless Romans in the colosseum and more about athletes displaying brutal behavior that ends up threatening the career of a talented and smart athlete.

  • Robert Lee

    Sports need villains as much as they need heroes. I suspect Mullan will get a dose of venom upon entry to the pitch, and every time he touches the ball. The only thing that would stop that would be Steve Z. getting on a mic and asking the fans to forgive. (And even that might not work) 

  • Nick Jacob

    “The better thing would be to maintain a silence at his introduction, sight or ball possession. The best thing would be polite applause.”

    Anyone else’s jaw still on the floor?

  • Rpoole11

    Wow, polite applause? really? That is one of the most ludicrous things I’ve ever heard. Mullan will get booed, this time, and likely every time he returns to Seattle for the rest of his career. He didn’t “make a mistake” He got angry and attacked an opponent with a vicious tackle, and unless he’s blind and deaf he knew he broke Zak’s leg.

  • Uatu

    The play was not unintentional.  If you watch the play, a midfielder
    tries a long pass to Mulen, but Zak steals it from him and Mulen raises
    hands in disgust to the official because he felt Tyson Wahl manhandled
    him.  He was going to get the ball back no matter what and takes chase
    once he knows no call will be made.  Note that he takes a direct line
    towards the sideline where SZ is running.  He does not change angle or
    speed because Mulen has given himself to the dark side out of
    frustration and anger and denies wrongdoing and only apologizes when he
    sees how badly he misjudged his tackle only when he finds out how
    seriously injured SZ is.  From my perspective Mulen, cost SZ a year of
    soccer experience, endangered his livelihood and mobility, and to an
    uncertain point altered his career path and earnings for the future
    because he didn’t like the call and lost his head for an instant,
    despite years of getting yellow cards and then being heady enough to
    tone down his physicality.  Zakuani is 100% class, but unfortunately, I
    am not, at least when this type of bodily harm has happened due to bad

  • Artthiel

    You’re right in that Sark doesn’t see that his deeds perpetuated the problem. But no coach does. They’re too busy keeping their heads down to look up to see the insanity.  

  • Artthiel

    Purpose doesn’t necessarily disqualify it as a mistake. But I do understand why you, Bonnell, and others are genuinely upset because Zakuani’s lost year had to do with individual petulance that was not part of the game.