Basketball Culture 101: Bill Russell’s Life in Black and White

[Editor's Note: Brendan Jackson covers the Boston Celtics as a Senior Writer at the ESPN TrueHoop Network Blog Here, he discusses the life and writings of Bill Russell, who was just recently honored by the President of the United States. Jackson draws on Russell's autobiographies: Go Up For Glory, and Second Wind to comment on the the evolution of Russell's legacy from controversial character in the 1960s to one of basketball's most revered and respected statesmen.--Beckley]

Well, Mr. President…you read my mind.

Russell receiving the Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama

After being tasked with reading both of Bill Russell’s Autobiography’s Go Up for Glory and Second Wind, I couldn’t help but feel the need to spend a thousand words advocating for proper recognition. Russell has a lot already. He has 11 NBA World Championships, he is enshrined in The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield Massachusetts, and he is widely revered as one of the very greatest basketball players to have ever played. None of these accolades, however, fully encapsulate the man who Bill Russell is and the experiences he has endured as both a basketball player and a man.

Finally, on Tuesday of this week, the President of the United States brought Russell one step closer to his deserved stratosphere of recognition. While standing among a throng philanthropists, artists, and activists, Russell bent his 6’9” frame down as the President of the United States of America fastened the Nation’s highest civilian distinction, the Medal of Freedom, around Russell’s neck.

While Russell’s statistical contributions to the game of basketball may be debated by some, his off-court reality is indisputable and neatly chronicled in Glory and Second Wind. These works provide ample anecdotal evidence of Russell’s worthiness of Presidential praise and also explain why Russell received this individual award with near ambivalence.

When asked to comment as to whether or not receiving the Medal of Freedom was Russell’s greatest achievement, he gave a characteristically unconventional answer:

“A close second. When he was about 77, my father and I were talking, and he said: ‘You know, you’re all grown up now, and I want to tell you something. You know, I am very proud of the way you turned out as my son, and I’m proud of you as a father.’ My father is my hero, O.K., and I cannot perceive of anything topping that, while I am very, very flattered by this honor.”

Basketball has always been ancillary to Russell’s main aspiration: to be a man of the highest integrity.

As the medium typically involves accomplished people doing awe-inspiring things, autobiographies can tend to carry a sentiment of subject glorification. Russell’s two books are no exception. What may be more important and consistent with the narrative of Bill Russell’s life is the way in which these two books and their writer were received by the public.

“Get up! stand up! Stand up for your rights.” ~ Bob Marley

Go Up for Glory was released in 1966. The nation was in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement. Russell was 32 years old and had just won his eighth consecutive world championship. Fresh in his mind were eight seasons of blood and sweat on the hardwood and anger and tears off of it. He combined all four of these elements together to culminate in this succinct retelling of the major experiences in his life. These experiences are described through the mind of an under-appreciated victim of racial prejudice; a framing that made white, pearl-wearing people feel uncomfortable.

Feeling “uncomfortable” is hardly an even trade-off for the conveyed hardships. Russell felt extremely uncomfortable at having to stay in hotels specifically for African-Americans, complete with complimentary cockroaches and none of the amenities enjoyed by his white peers.

The overall attitude of Glory can be summed up with Russell’s response to gawkers at his height: “’Are you a basketball player?” To them I say, “No, I am a jockey.” This Larry David-esque wit is built off an attitude that screams “if you don’t care what I have to say, then I guess I can say whatever I want.”

Despite his status as the best in the game, Russell was still relegated background

“As life gets longer, awful feels softer” ~ Isaac Brock

Second Wind is an apropos title for Bill Russell’s second autobiography. He exhausted his efforts in his first by dutifully describing the plight of the African-American athlete in the 1950s and 60s. In Second Wind, he gets a second chance to fill in the gaps of one experience to another with more nuance and direction.

The biggest distinction between the two books is the tone. In Glory, Russell describes a now infamous situation during an exhibition game in Kentucky with just indignation. Russell refused to take the court due to a racially charged incident at a hotel coffee shop and the local sportswriter took it as a personal insult to Russell’s Kentuckian teammates Frank Ramsay and Cliff Hagan:

“A St. Louis sportswriter, Bob Burns, insisted in his column that I be suspended for insulting two such fine gentlemen as Ramsay and Hagan. I wondered then and I wonder now—what about me being offended? Or am I a person?”

In Second Wind, he describes such incidents of racial inequality and judgment more matter-of-factly, with the removed tone of the observer rather than the participant. In one particular recapitulation, Russell describes a good-will tour to Africa after he has already become an established NBA Superstar in which he had to deal with bigoted US Government officials:

“The State Department representatives that greeted me were seedy, alcoholic types who started calling me “boy” before I reached the last step of the exit ramp from the plane, and they spoke of their African hosts with contempt. One after another, they seemed to be arrogant louts, almost competitively eager to be racist.”

Second Wind was released 1979. Russell had been retired for ten years, his jersey for seven, and he had been a Hall of Famer for four. It seemed as though he had more time to flesh out his experiences with more context. Most people, even those not used to the everyday rigors of living in racist America can identify with another’s experience if it is described in detail. The “keeping it real” aspect of Glory was replaced with an “Oh, the places you’ll go” feeling. The books’ respective endings keep this narrative consistent. Second Wind finishes with Russell’s recounting of ascending Mount Rainier only to stop just before the top to say he had done enough. This, of course, serves as the allegory for Russell’s life being about downplaying individual achievement, whether as a basketball player and a teammate, or an African-American and a member of an oppressed race. Glory, on the other hand, ends with a similar sentiment, yet expectedly more directly delivered:

“I believe that I can contribute something far more important than mere basketball. I said before three emotions have always been very real to me– fear, prejudice, and bitterness. It is the reactions to these emotions that make a man. In the end, I live with the hopes that when I die, it will be inscribed for me: ‘Bill Russell. He was a man.”

Today, we live in a different country than the America Bill Russell endured during his heyday. A country where Bill Russell is not only respected and admired for what he did for the game of basketball, but where words that were once received with contempt are now accurately recognized as brave. A country where segregated hotels do not exist. A country where racism still exists, but is increasingly marginalized.

Where vandalizing property with racial epithets are universally condemned and are the exception and not the rule. This past Saturday, a drunk student at the University of Missouri allegedly spray-painted a racial slur on a campus fixture and on Tuesday Bill Russell received the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American President of the United States of America. Some people see what happened Saturday and wonder why sentiments like those expressed by the student still exist. Bill Russell knows why they exist but he also knows that time has the power to heal wounds and progress is possible.

Unfortunately, even receiving the Medal of Freedom from the President of the United States of America is not enough to properly honor Russell’s legacy.  How could anything representative of individual impact ever be enough?  As The Boston Globe notes, Russell needs his statue and more importantly, he needs his inscription.

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Check out more of HoopSpeak’s Basketball Culture 101

This HoopSpeak project is based on the University of Michigan course Basketball Cultures. Click to read the enlightening thoughts of course’s professor, Dr. Yago Colás

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