Academy of Achievement Logo
Achiever Gallery
  The Arts
  Public Service
  Science & Exploration
   + [ Sports ]
  My Role Model
  Recommended Books
  Academy Careers
Keys to Success
Achievement Podcasts
About the Academy
For Teachers

Search the site

Academy Careers


If you like Bill Russell's story, you might also like:
Hank Aaron,
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,
Yogi Berra,
Julius Erving,
Coretta Scott King,
Mike Krzyzewski,
John Lewis,
Peyton Manning,
Willie Mays,
Rosa Parks,
Sidney Poitier,
Colin Powell,
Herschel Walker,
Lenny Wilkens,
John Wooden
and Andrew Young

Bill Russell can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Related Links:
Hall of Fame

Share This Page
  (Maximum 150 characters, 150 left)

Bill Russell
Bill Russell
Profile of Bill Russell Biography of Bill Russell Interview with Bill Russell Bill Russell Photo Gallery

Bill Russell Interview (page: 6 / 8)

Cornerstone of the Boston Celtics' Dynasty

Print Bill Russell Interview Print Interview

  Bill Russell

What kind of racism did you experience yourself back then, in your early career?

Bill Russell: Well you see -- about racism -- and about a lot of things, it is far more important to understand than to be understood. Now my high school coach told us, "The referee's going to cheat you, and when you guys start playing, and guys find out they can't compete, they're going to try to pick a fight. And if you react to that, here's what will happen. If you fight, if you get into a fist fight, in the papers it will say it was a riot, and you're a bunch of thugs. If you get into two or three fights, you're just a bunch of thugs. So no fights. Not that..." the coach said it very clear, "It's not that I don't think you can fight, because we know better, but we want to win games. So what we do is when a team tries to provoke you into a fight, don't fight, play harder. Embarrass them with the game." Whether they try to pick a fight, I'm not going to fight. "You scared?" No. Whatever, let's play. And I've used that, for example.

Bill Russell Interview Photo
When I was a sophomore in college, in junior college, we played on the West Coast. We were in a small league, the California Basketball Association. The big league was the Pacific Coast Conference, which at that time consisted of Idaho, Idaho State, Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA, okay, and our conference, College of the Pacific and Loyola, Marymount. College of the Pacific had one black player, and I think Loyola might have had two, but I know they had one. Cal had one black player, UCLA had three. Idaho, Idaho State: none. Washington, Washington State: none. Oregon, Oregon State: none. Stanford: none. Cal: one. UCLA: three. USC: none. So now we played against all these guys and we're getting tons, literally -- well, baskets we'll say -- of hate mail, because we had three black starters. In San Francisco itself, the school used to get letters of complaints from local Catholic parents that the school should not be giving scholarships to all these black guys when deserving young white Catholics could be using those scholarships. I had to discipline myself.

I had an agenda, and there was nothing that was going to get me away from that. And my agenda was to win every game, if possible. Nothing that anyone externally or internally could do to change that. And so, you're operating in a place where the only thing keeps you going is you know that you are right. Like my college coach -- who was incidentally a good man but we never got along. As a player and a coach it was oil and water. First game against Cal, their center had been pre-season All American, all that. The first five shots he took, I blocked. So they called time out. They had never seen anything like this, because there was nobody blocking shots before. When I started blocking shots I had never seen anybody block a shot. So they called time out. They go in their huddle. We go in our huddle. The first thing my coach says to me is, "You can't play defense that way." And I'm thinking, "Why would you say that?" He said, "This is the way I want you to play defense." And he showed me right there. He wanted me to half-man him, keep this at his back, and deny the passes to him. Well, I tried that. He had his little point guard, took one dribble to his right, dropped a bounce pass, he caught it, turned, I'm on his back, out of defense, he shoots the lay-up. He does that three times in a row, my coach never said anything. That was the way he wanted me to play. So I said -- mentally -- I said to myself, "No. Not going to happen." So I went back to playing the way I knew how to play. As a consequence, for three years we were in this big argument about that I was a lousy defensive player because the mantra -- if you want to call it that -- in those days was, "No good defensive player ever leaves his feet." I couldn't block shots without leaving my feet. So I was violating all the preconceived rules. When I think that it never occurred to them that this was an innovation -- I just give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they never expected an innovation to come out of the projects of West Oakland.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

This is really fun talking to you.

Bill Russell: I'm going to tell you something. You will never encounter a person that had more fun than I did in my profession.

Could you give us an example?

Bill Russell: Like the first game, I sat there after the guy got three lay-ups. I shot him out the rest of the game, okay? I knew what I had done and I enjoyed it. No matter what anybody else on the planet said, I tried something, it had worked. And I knew that it worked.

We played in a tournament in Oklahoma City, and boy was that fun. Well, what happened was we were eighth seeded in an eight-team tournament. So what happens when you're the eighth team, they make you play the first team, first game. So it was Wichita, or Wichita State now. And they had never heard of USF -- the coach -- because he told me a story later, he thought it was San Francisco State. When he found out it wasn't San Francisco State, he sent his brother out to scout us. The game he scouted was the last game we lost in college. So we lost to UCLA at Westwood. So a week or two later, we were playing in Oklahoma City, and so just before he goes out, his brother gives him the scouting report. He said, "I don't know what to tell you about these guys. They cannot play a lick. They got two guards; they can't put the ball in the ocean." One of them was K.C. Jones. "And they've got this tall colored kid playing center. He doesn't do anything." You see, in my college career, my college team never had a play for me to shoot. The only time I got a shot was when we were freelancing it before they had a chance to set the offense up. So he says, "This colored guy, he doesn't do anything. All he does is jump. So sometimes he would just stand there and jump for no reason at all. So you starters, they can't give you a game. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that the good high school teams in Kansas could beat these guys. So you don't worry about it." So okay, the game starts. So three minutes into the game, they call time out. The score is 25 to three.

Bill Russell: We were 30 points ahead at half time. Another thing. Our coach, he would never pour it on, so our starters only played three minutes of the second half and we still won by 19.

That does sound like fun.

Bill Russell: In that tournament, in the championship game, we played Red Auerbach's old college team. And his coach was still playing. And we watched his coach lose two games. And one thing about him, he's very stoic. He'd sit there like this and never move, and he'd say, "So-and-so go in. Go in for that guy." He'd never move. He would just sit there. No matter what, he never moved. So I said to K.C., "I'm going to make him flinch." I said, "I don't know how, but I'm going to make him move." So second half, I think, and we outscored them 22 to one, just broke the game open. So what they tried was -- they had a six-eight forward, but their center was only six-six, and the forward guarding the six-eight guy was six-three. So they said, "What we'll do is put the six-eight guy at the post, and the center will go out and play forward." I don't know what they thought, but when that center went out to forward, I grabbed my six-three forward in the back, without saying a word, and told him to go guard the center out there. So the guy that he was guarding backed into the post, he didn't know I was behind him. So he gets the ball, he turns around, he sees me and he shoots the ball over the backboard. And I turned and looked at the coach and he goes (mimics flinch.) And we used to do things like that all the time, and it was so much fun, not only the winning, but how we won and how we had an agenda and to see it unfold was fun.

Bill Russell Interview, Page: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   

This page last revised on Sep 02, 2008 12:55 EDT
How To Cite This Page