The basketball great Bill Russell died a week ago at 88. During the 50s and 60s, he led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships in 13 years. But this post isn’t about basketball. It’s about life.

Russell was an outspoken man. He was never concerned about the impression he made, but his words made a big impression. He produced thoughtful quotes, many in the books he wrote with co-authors. Bottom line: basketball was only part of his story. Owner of 11 championship rings, Russell said, “My most prized possession was my library card from the Oakland Public Library.” 

What Russell said about basketball has much to teach. For example: “The most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I made my teammates play.” And, “Create unselfishness as the most important team attribute.” Beyond talking the talk, he walked the walk. I know. I saw him play throughout his pro career.

Here, let me give credit to Russell’s Celtics coach, Red Auerbach. A Jew from Brooklyn, Auerbach taught team-oriented. eastern-style ball. Not so easy to make happen when all your players were stars in college.

Russell proved a perfect fit. Yes, he had an abundance of ego and was supremely confident. Yet he understood that putting his ego aside could make his team better. He was willing to blend in, although he couldn’t help standing out. 

Russell once said that on the court, he occasionally had to be invisible. He could have scored more points, but he was not going to win a championship all by himself. The Celtics surrounded him with great talent. Those players had to be able to exercise their skills without Russell getting in the way. 

Russell became a terrific passer and helped keep the Celtics’ five-man offense flowing. Most important, he pioneered a new approach to defense—blocking shots and guiding them to teammates. He got into his opponents’ heads and made them change their shots—or pass them up. 

I stated earlier that this post isn’t really about basketball. So think about this:

How might American society better deal with our problems if we all displayed Russell’s team-oriented attitude rather than just spouting platitudes? How much better might government function at every level if politicians stopped grandstanding and devoted themselves to helping make life better for all their constituents and the nation as a whole?

How much better might millions of individual lives be if leaders of major corporations paid as much attention to their employees, communities and consumers as to their companies’ stock prices, driven by thinking both short-term and short-sighted? 

What if we as citizens saw ourselves as part of a larger group rather than embracing the “me first, me only” culture? What if we sought not only to secure our own places in society but also to help our fellow Americans—those who resemble us and those who don’t—lead more productive, healthier and satisfying lives?

I’m not putting Bill Russell up for sainthood. But we should take seriously that this all-time great basketball player acknowledged the need to occasionally make himself invisible for the good of his team. I hope that message becomes visible at a time when so many people close their eyes to what’s going on around them.

Order Lola Flores in softcover or e-book from Amazonbarnesandnoble.com or your favorite bookstore.

See the video of my interview about Lola Flores as part of Congregation Sherith Israel’s summer literary salon series.

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  1. Tracy on August 5, 2022 at 11:21 am

    Whereas the great Bill Russell shouldn’t be sainted, perhaps he should be “Donned” as a USF alum. He put USF on the map nationally, and his Celtic career is legendary. I’d argue he was the best ever (apologies to Wilt, Kareem, MJ, LBJ, and Steph), but more than that he overcame extreme racism in what he termed “the most racist city in America” (Boston). RIP, fellow Don, and may your memory always be for a blessing.

    • David Perlstein on August 5, 2022 at 11:39 am

      Thanks for this, Tracy. USF ran a full-page ad in today’s Chronicle sports section in Bill Russell’s memory.

  2. David Newman on August 5, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    I remember sneaking my pre-transistor radio close to my bed so I could very quietly listen to the USF basketball games during the Russell-KC Jones seasons. Good times.

    As for Russell for sainthood, why not? Saints and prophets were rarely pleasant to be around. Like Bill Russell, they had the uncomfortable habit of telling people truths they didn’t want to hear. Occasionally they had to work a few miracles to get people to pay attention; 11 NBA championships would qualify as a miracle for most people. So why not Saint Bill?

    One side note: in the movie “The Green Book,” there’s a scene in which the black pianist is refused dinner service at the Birmingham AL country club where he is scheduled to play. When his driver pleads his case, the club manager refers to a visit by a touring pro basketball team, and says, “If that big (derogatory term for African-Americans) couldn’t eat here, your boy isn’t going to eat here.” The reference is historical. The Celtics did an exhibition tour, and Russell indeed was not allowed to eat in the club’s dining room. Many years later, Bob Cousy apologized to Russell for not realizing everything that he and the other Black players had to put up with.

    • David Perlstein on August 5, 2022 at 1:37 pm

      All good additions to the post, David. I’ll let those who propose sainthood work on Russell’s case.

  3. jean wright on August 5, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    Bill Russell and I share the same “most prized possession”.

    • David Perlstein on August 5, 2022 at 3:38 pm

      Enjoy it often, Jean.

  4. Sandy Lipkowitz on August 8, 2022 at 5:06 pm

    So true how we have lost the value of community. We are social animals and we live better if everyone can live better. Maybe not all equal but at least a good base level for everyone. Then others can build up from there.

    • David Perlstein on August 8, 2022 at 9:01 pm

      You are quite right, Sandy. Over the decades, Americans have grown apart unable to empathize with each other, and we’re paying the price.

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