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Bill Russell
Bill Russell
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Bill Russell Interview

Cornerstone of the Boston Celtics' Dynasty

July 4, 2008
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

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  Bill Russell

In your first year in the NBA, you made perhaps the most celebrated play in professional basketball history. Can you tell us about the Coleman play?

Bill Russell: That was my rookie year. You see, up until that time, in general, rookies were not people yet. "All they do is cost you ball games, making rookie mistakes." Well, Tom Heinsohn had one of the greatest games I've ever seen. He had 38 points and 23 rebounds, which was not a bad afternoon, and fouled out in the first overtime playing defense. Okay? And Frank Ramsey, who originated the six-man position, we had the last two points in the game, and we won by two in double overtime.

Getting into double overtime, I went, I made a "back-door" and I got the pass too late to make the basket, so I went, I missed the shot and I went out. Well, they got the rebound uncontested and outlet it to a guy at half court, Coleman. And we didn't have anybody past the top of the foul circle. So all he had to do was dribble down and lay it up. Well, I come back on the court and I see what's happening and I take off. And I ran by everybody and I caught him. And when he got the ball at half court I was still out of bounds on the baseline. And I saw nobody was going after him, so I went after him. And not being too modest, I was probably if not the -- closest to the fastest man in the league. Nobody knew that though. So I caught him and I blocked his shot and I didn't knock it in the stands. I blocked the shot and kept it in play. I almost forgot about the play until Heinsohn and Cousy and those guys were talking about it that that was the greatest play they'd ever seen. I wasn't going to let us lose, not standing around anyway. If we were going to lose, we were going to lose fighting.

You and Wilt Chamberlain had the most famous rivalry in basketball, but we understand you were actually friends off the court. What was that like?

Bill Russell: Wilt and I were -- when he was playing in Philadelphia, we used to have a Thanksgiving night game in Philadelphia every year. It was like every year this... at noon he would come to the hotel and pick me up and I would have Thanksgiving dinner with his family -- you know he had a lot of brothers and sisters -- and his mother would let me take a nap in his bed after we had Thanksgiving dinner. And then we'd go to the game together. And as we left the home, she'd say, "You be nice to my boy!" And everybody thought for years and years that we were (rivals) because they projected. They didn't know either one of use. We were not rivals. That's what most people did not understand. That's somebody that didn't know either one of us. We were not rivals. We were competitors, which is a totally different thing, because in a rivalry there's a victor and a vanquished. Neither one of us fit either side of that. We were competitors that played the same position in completely different ways. Both of us had our agendas, and our agendas were to win. Now he thought -- and rightfully so -- that he was the greatest basketball player that ever lived. And if he went out every night and performed as the greatest basketball player that ever lived, they should win a lot of games. So they won a lot of games.

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell Interview Photo

My approach was it's a team game. And the only important stat, if you want to call it that, is the final score. And so I was only interested in winning. But that goes back to my high school and college days. At that time it was never acceptable that a black player was the best. That did not happen. That's like all the baseball players in the Negro leagues. They were never considered Hall of Famers or anything like that, although we found out later that they were just as good, if not better, than the so-called famous. So I'll digress for just a minute. My junior year in college, I had what I thought was the one of the best college seasons ever. We won 28 out of 29 games. We won the National Championship. I was the MVP at the Final Four. I was first team All American. I averaged over 20 points and over 20 rebounds, and I was the only guy in college blocking shots. So after the season was over, they had a Northern California banquet, and they picked another center as Player of the Year in Northern California. Well, that let me know that if I were to accept these as the final judges of my career I would die a bitter old man. So I made a conscious decision: "What I'll do is I will try my very best to win every game. So when my career is finished it will be a historical fact I won these games, these championships, and there's no one's opinion how good I am or how good other guys are or comparing things." And so as I chronicle my career playing basketball, I played organized basketball for 21 years and I was on 18 championship teams. So that's what my standard is: playing a team game and my team winning. I really applaud -- and adore really -- these great athletes, that play my game especially. So I feel humbled if someone wants to go past that and include me in that group, 'cause I never include myself in that group.

Everyone includes you in that group now. You played in so many championship games against the L.A. Lakers, but you've mentioned that you have enduring friendships with several of them, contrary to what the public might have thought about the rivalry. You got a letter from Jerry West just recently. What did he say?

Bill Russell: He just said he honored and appreciated our friendship and how kind and considerate I've been of him throughout his whole career. And he wanted to thank me.

You see, when Jerry was a rookie with the (Lakers), that was the year that the Lakers moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. That's where the name Lakers comes from, the Minnesota Lakers, because of all the lakes in Minnesota. When Jerry was a rookie, and we -- the Celtics -- came out to the West Coast to California and welcomed and introduced the Lakers to the West Coast. So we played I think 16 or 17 exhibition games, starting in San Diego all the way up to San Luis Obispo. And so we were just living together for a month. And Elgin Baylor -- we had been friends since I was in college -- and Jerry was a rookie and Elgin was a star, and Elgin sort of mentored Jerry. So everywhere Elgin went, Jerry went. And so we, all of us were, no matter who they were, rookies in the league. I know that all the people I know welcomed the rookies, because they could make our game better. And that's what most of us were interested in, was making our game the best that we could make it.

Did Jerry West as a rookie show the promise of the player he would eventually become?

Bill Russell: Yes. He was very, very good. I think the only reason he wasn't Rookie of the Year was because of Oscar Robertson. That does create a problem!

Jerry was a very, very competitive, very intelligent ballplayer. That's one of the things that I like to tell folks about these great basketball players is that the greater they are the smarter they are. And that no guy can reach the top of his field without knowing what he's doing. The Lakers like West and Chamberlain and Baylor, and a host of other guys who I knew quite well, they were at the wrong place at the right time, because you know everybody says we beat the Lakers all the time. While that is true, the other thing you have to consider is we beat everybody! It wasn't just the Lakers. A guy was telling me something about we lost one year and how I had had remarkable success against Wilt. I said, "If you can win eight straight championships you've beaten everybody." There's not one person that you said "Well, I beat him." You beat everybody! And that's the way we felt about it. And as far as I can figure for myself, there was never any animosity towards other players.

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This page last revised on Sep 02, 2008 12:55 EDT
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