When Bill Russell passed away last week just as I was going on holidays, it prompted me to reach for and pack a book I hadn’t read fully in decades.
It was, I suppose, a basketball fan’s way of honouring the man but also from a curiosity to see if his autobiography still measured up and did justice to the towering life and personality it was meant to capture.
Russell was only about halfway through his remarkable life when Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man first hit the shelves back in 1979 and was considered enough of a classic to be still in print when I came across it in a Manhattan bookstore the summer of USA ’94. But in a way some of it was wasted on me. At that time and that age, Russell’s account of racism and rural poverty seemed to be strictly monochrome, anachronistic to the Technicolor America of Clinton and Jordan that I and seemingly the rest of Ireland — indeed the world — was delighting in, rather than a prologue to the America of Trump and a slice of the America there’s always been.
Growing up in Louisiana and later Oakland, California, one of Russell’s most prized possessions was his library card. A little after his 13th birthday he took out a book on early American history when “it was as if somebody had stuck out a foot there on the page and tripped my mind”.
According to this supposed historical authority, most slaves still enjoyed a better life in America than they had in their African homeland.
Russell, while in a daze, still had the presence and independence of mind to get up and walk out of the library. “For the first time I felt grounded in anger and it would last for years to come.”
He would return to that library though, being more judicious of sources and material. He’d read up on Henri Christophe who led a slave uprising and transformed Haiti into a free black country. Russell was aware that Christophe became a ruthless tyrant but that didn’t stop him being his first hero other than his own mother. “To me [Christophe] was just the opposite of a slave: He would not be one. His life brought home to me for the first time that being black was not just a limiting feeling.”
It would be an attitude that would inform the rest of Russell’s life. Never has there been a better subtitle for an autobiography: Russell would go on to be a highly opinionated man, no one’s slave, no one’s fool.
Of course he would still be limited by what he could or couldn’t do on account of the colour of his skin. In 1962, by which time he had already led the Boston Celtics to five NBA championships, he revisited Monroe, the small Louisiana town he lived in up to his mother’s premature death. Russell drove down there with his two sons in a new steel-grey Lincoln convertible that must have looked to the locals as a spaceship yet even such wealth and fame couldn’t spare him and his children the indignity of being repeatedly turned away at restaurant after restaurant; en route his boys repeatedly complained of hunger. One night they even napped by the side of the road in that Lincoln because they couldn’t find a decent hotel that’d put them up.
But Russell’s spirit would remain untouched and unlimited by such barriers. Instead he’d leap them, just as he would claiming all those rebounds and titles for the Celtics.
In 1967 his grandfather attended a Celtics preseason game in Louisiana, the first and only time he’d go to a basketball game. During the game the Old Man couldn’t get over the sight and idea of his grandson not just playing with the Celtics but coaching them, the first black man to head coach any team in any of America’s four professional sports leagues; more than once he asked the person beside him: “Do them white boys really have to do what William tells them?”
His incredulity increased when he visited the Celtics locker room after the game and saw John Havlicek and Sam Jones talking away together in the showers. “I never thought I’d live to see when the water would run off a white man onto a black man,” he said, breaking down crying. “You know, I can tell those two men like each other.”
Second Wind is less an autobiography as a series of essays by a remarkable independent thinker. Themes rather than periods determine its structure.
In one chapter called ‘Starting Points’, he touches on everything from Vietnam to Northern Ireland as well as delving further into race and how he didn’t fully agree with the ways of Dr Martin Luther King. “My philosophy may be one of love but I don’t have a tread-on-me-personality… In the immortal words of the Old Man, ‘Nonviolent is what I am before somebody hits me!”
Russell’s account of his relationships with the women he’s loved in his life is remarkably frank and intimate but never seedy or salacious.
But while the book is more about a man who happened to play sport than it is a sports book, rarely will you get such insights into sport itself as his chapters ‘Sports’ and ‘Champions’. In part that is down to his choice of ghostwriter, Taylor Branch, a white, Pulitzer-winning author for a book on America in the MLK years. But in large part it is down to Russell himself and his level of introspection and reflection.
Nobody did more winning in sport than Russell: In 13 years as a player in the NBA, he won the championship 11 times. And nobody was about winning more than Russell. ‘Champions’ explains why, yet paradoxically how the thrill for him was in the chase — and that that there was a real chase.
In a Game 7 of the NBA Finals and with the Celtics up 16 points in the final quarter, he found himself disappointed that the Lakers weren’t playing better. He’d occasionally berate referees that broke the flow of a game to give a free in his favour.
“I wanted this to keep going. I’d actually be rooting for the other team. I’d be out there talking to the other Celtics, pushing myself hard, but at the same time a part of me would be pulling for the other players too. At that special level all sorts of odd things happen.”
Second Wind is all the better on a second read now that we coach kids ourselves. Russell isn’t merely one of the most accomplished and socially active athletes ever, he is probably the best late-developer ever. Going into his last year in high school, he was the 16th player on his team. The school had only 15 uniforms and he was the odd one out, but thanks to a tolerant, patient — and surprisingly, white — coach, Russell was kept on.
And then in possibly the best passage ever written on the power of visualisation, he started to recreate the moves of teammates. “I was in my own private basketball laboratory, making mental blueprints for myself.”
Russell uniquely did not believe in signing autographs, believing them to be an artificial, disempowering, and often disruptive interaction. Instead he preferred shaking your hand. The writing he reserved for this masterful collaboration with Branch. What a book. Life. Man.