[Crossposted from New Books in History] I imagine the guys who first faced Bill Russell felt like I did when I had to guard Antoine Carr in high school. I “held” Carr to 32 points. But no dunks! Russell’s opponents in college and the NBA rarely fared any better. Sports talk is full of hyperbole, but in Russell’s case most of it is true. In his time, he was far and away the best player to ever step on the court and, for most of his career, he completely owned every court he stepped on. He was so dominant that they changed the rules so less gifted players would have a chance.
Bill Russell, however, was not only a surpassingly great basketball player, he was also an African American star in an era in which being an African American star (or just being an African American) was very complicated. Today we are used to seeing outstandingly successful blacks in all (or almost all) spheres of life. In the mid-1950s that just wasn’t true. The American ruling elite was lily white, and that’s the way most white Americans thought it should be. Bill Russell (and Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Willie Mays, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, among others) were anomalies: they were black, but they were both extraordinarily accomplished and remarkably famous. They couldn’t just be athletes; they had to be symbols of some promising (or frightening) new world as well. That’s quite a burden to bear.
In King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution (University of California Press, 2010), Aram Goudsouzian has done a great service by detailing the ways Russell bore this weight, and the ways in which he fought to throw it off. Aram makes clear that Russell was a conflicted soul. He lacked self-confidence, but he was brusk and even arrogant. He was friendly and gregarious to some, but often simply rude to others. He was hot tempered, but he affected a cool, distant demeanor. He believed he was a man of principle (and convinced others he was), but he periodically abandoned his family for a playboy lifestyle. If Russell couldn’t be honest about himself, he insisted on being honest about everything and everyone around him. He meant what he said and said what he meant–about race, about sports, about anything that bothered him. He was a sort of athletic Socrates, always questioning and never fully accepting the way things were. And, like Socrates, Russell was willing to suffer for his beliefs. As Aram points out, he did in many ways. But in the process he gained the respect of almost everyone he encountered. He was a hard man to like, but he was an easy man to admire.
I should add that if you like white-hot game narratives, this book is full of them. Remember this?: “Greer is putting the ball in play. He gets it out deep and Havlicek steals it! Over to Sam Jones… Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over… It’s all-l-l-l over!” Johnny Most, RIP.
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