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If you like Bill Russell's story, you might also like:
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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,
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Julius Erving,
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Mike Krzyzewski,
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Bill Russell
Bill Russell
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Bill Russell Interview (page: 8 / 8)

Cornerstone of the Boston Celtics' Dynasty

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Boston had a reputation -- until a very short time ago -- for racism. There were no black guys on the Red Sox, for example, for many years.

Bill Russell: A couple of things about that. First of all, they earned their reputation, okay? But they were no worse than New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco. They just got notoriety for it, but they weren't any worse. I don't know if you remember that in San Francisco, when Willie Mays moved out there, he bought a house and somebody came by and threw a brick through his window. Did you know that?

Lenny Wilkens told us in an interview for the Academy of Achievement that in the early 1960s, in the South, players on his team were told, "You can't stay at this hotel." Did that happen to you too?

Bill Russell: Yeah. We stopped it, because the only place we had any problem was St. Louis, where Wilkens was playing.

We were in a game in Kentucky in 1960. We refused to play, because they wouldn't feed us. Now there are a couple of things about that that most people don't know. We insisted that the white players play the game. You know, here's a team, they stick with our team together and all of that. I know I personally did not want that, because I did not want to make it so that these white guys are taking care of the black guys. We are men who can take care of themselves. And that's what I wanted to emphasize more than anything else. So that the black guys did not play, but the white guys did play. In fact, I applaud them for playing. Because I wanted us to say, "We are not going to put up with this." You see? It's like, if the whole team had left, it would have been like the Celtics sponsored us. I did not want the Celtics to sponsor us. If I wanted to, Walter Brown would have, 'cause he was a great man. Okay? All he had to do is -- just any indication. In fact, when we got to Boston, he apologized to us for this happening to his team.

So they wouldn't let you eat in a restaurant?

Bill Russell: Yeah. And they tried to make some changes while we were there.

First, the guy that owned the restaurant said that -- owned the hotel, was a manager too -- and he said, "Well listen, I'm sorry it happened, but I'll tell you what. I'll invite all you guys up to my private suite and you can have dinner with me." I said to Red, "Who the hell does he think I want to have dinner with him? I don't want to have dinner with him. I don't know him. The heck with that." Then they called back and said, "Well, if you guys play, we will not segregate in that restaurant after this, so that will be the end of the segregation in that restaurant." And I said, "Red, I want to explain something to you. There's nothing that's going to happen or be said today or tonight that will change the fact that we're not going to play." You see, because if you did it any other way, if we had played, it would be a minor incident and the people would think, "Well, this is how we can get around that." See, I wanted them to know that this is totally unacceptable and there are no compromises that can be made. And to my knowledge -- I don't know if I'm 100 percent correct -- but I don't think there was another. That was the last all-white game in the NBA.

But in spite of these kind of problems, you still say that your professional life was fun for you.

Bill Russell Interview Photo
Bill Russell: That's right. You see, all these things happening, in a sense, gave me something to do! To come up with a system to deal with it that does not impact you negatively is invigorating. Walter Brown, the owner, calls me up one time and says, "You won't believe what happened! I was at the owner's meeting and the Knickerbockers had come up with a new rule they were going to make, and they had the votes to pass it." And the rule was "no facial hair on any player in the NBA." That's like the Yankees now, right? So Walter Brown said no. "What do you mean no? We got the votes." "I don't care, not going to do it." "What do you mean you're not going to do it?" "Not going to do it. " He said, "Listen, you guys in New York. There are two players in the NBA wearing beards: Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. You don't have either one of them. Now every time they come in the building you have standing room only. Why do you think you have a right to mess with them? They're not your players. And if the crowds are coming to see them, they must accept it, right? I'm not going to let you do that. And besides that, my player would probably quit and sue the hell out of you for restraint of trade." And the next year The New York Times Sunday Magazine called the Knickerbockers. They wanted to put Bill Russell on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. For the very first time they were going to put an NBA player on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

We were practicing at the Garden, the Boston Garden, and Red says, "After practice I want you to come down to the office. I want you to listen to something." So in those days, they had a speaker phone, a little box that sat on their desk, and he called this guy, a PR guy for the Knicks. "Hey, Red! Put Russell on an airplane and get him down here this afternoon. The New York Times Sunday Magazine wants to put him on the cover. I don't know why they want to use him. There's a whole bunch of guys better looking than him. Why do they want to put him? I don't know, but send him down here anyway. This afternoon." So Red said, "I can't send him any place. I have to talk to him and I'll call you back." The guy didn't know I was sitting there listening. And so Red says, "What do you think?" I said, "The hell with him." I cleaned it up for you! I says, "The hell with him and The New York Times Sunday Magazine." He says, "Well, I'll just say this. I'm not going to ask you what to do, or give you any indication of what you should do, but you being on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Magazine -- which is the largest circulation magazine in the country -- would be helpful to the league. You know, we're still trying to get complete major league acceptance. So that would help." I said, "Okay, if you put it that way, but I'm not going down today." I said, "We play them next Tuesday."

"You tell him next Tuesday. What I'll do is I'll go down early and have them set up a room and I'll go and take the pictures at three o'clock. Okay?"

So I go down there and I go over to the Garden and they got this room with the vanilla paper they used to use. So this guy from the Knicks walks in there and I'm taking my stuff out of my travel bag. And he walks to me and hands me this bag, a brown paper bag. "What's this?" "Razor and shaving cream. You can't go on The New York Times Sunday Magazine with no beard!" I said, "Okay. You don't have a beard, you take the picture!" I didn't say it that nice though! And I packed my stuff back up and went back to the hotel and went to sleep. Well, the next week, every day for a week, we get calls from The New York Times: "We'd like to reschedule, and we guarantee you nobody from the Knickerbockers will be in the building!"

Thank you so much for the great interview. We can't thank you enough.

Bill Russell: Well, as we used to say in West Oakland, "Knock it off."

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