Catching His Second Wind, Ex-Celtic Legend Bill Russell Scores Now as a Social Critic
It’s a period I went through, like high school, and it’s over. I don’t relate to it anymore, even though I enjoyed it when I was there.” Basketball will never outgrow Bill Russell, though. He revolutionized defensive play with his shot blocking and made it a key part of the game’s draw for sophisticated spectators. In 13 seasons in Boston, Russell also led the Celtics to 11 championships and became the first black to coach a major U.S. professional team.
It was a glory that would forever imprison almost any other jock, but Russell says, “An athlete’s career is by definition a temporary vocation. You go in, you take a shot and then move on.” Since he stopped playing in 1969 he has gone to only two games he wasn’t paid to attend (as coach or sports-caster), but Bill couldn’t resist getting off one shot for the road—a book called Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man.
The title is vintage Russell. Even in his championship seasons he insisted that others define him not as a basketball player but as a man who played basketball (and politely refused autographs because “it creates the illusion that we had touched when we hadn’t”). Today, at 45, Russell remains the complex, sometimes contradictory figure who is curt one moment and a charming wit the next. “He’s got that Sonny Liston glower that scares people to death,” says his co-author, Taylor Branch. Yet Russell constantly punctuates his presence with a full-throated cackle. “If a giraffe could laugh,” writes the 6’9″ ex-center, “it would sound like me.”
The memoirs trace his beginnings in Monroe, La., his growing up in Oakland, Calif. and his belated discovery of the athletic abilities that helped lift the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA titles and the U.S. to Olympic gold at Melbourne in 1956. “I have warm memories of personal encounters,” he states, “people I’ve touched and people who have touched me.” Indeed, he affectionately recalls numbers of caring relatives, coaches, teammates and esteemed opponents like Oscar Robertson and Jerry West—not to mention two lovers, a bookish stripper named Kitty and a street-wise moll called Iodine. The tone switches to mea culpa when Bill recounts his rift with archrival Wilt Chamberlain or when he dissects a first marriage that disintegrated after 13 years (and three children). In this book only the heavies, mostly race-baiting rednecks on and off the court, remain anonymous.
Yet, if Russell has left basketball and moved on, he hasn’t quite diagrammed what’s next. He’s tried acting (a bit part in Chuck Connors’ Cowboy in Africa TV series), commercials (for Ma Bell) and politics (with RFK). “Being a single parent has been the toughest assignment I’ve ever had,” he says, but his book ducks details of that task as well as of his 1977 second marriage, to former beauty queen Didi Anstett, now 32. “She’s far too private for me to write much about,” he insists.
The Russells live on Mercer Island, Wash., where he bangs out a weekly column for the Seattle Times on every topic except basketball. The same rule applies to his twice-weekly commentary for KABC-TV in Los Angeles. In a sense Russell’s second wind is very much a continuation of his first: a personal journey of self-discovery. “I don’t think my life has been a model for anyone,” he says. “But I can’t imagine anyone I’d change places with.”