Remembering Great American Bill Russell

“Bill Russell, an 11-time NBA champion as a player and coach with the Boston Celtics and one of the most important figures in NBA history, has died at the age of 88,” reports CBS Sports

With championships at the high-school, college, and Olympic levels, Russell was the “most prolific winner” in American sports history. He was also a member of the dream team that, as teammate Oscar Robertson explains, “you’ve probably never heard of.” 

In 1964, the U.S. State Department asked Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach to assemble a team of NBA players for a goodwill tour of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union declined to admit the Americans, the first professional hoopsters to represent the United States abroad. 

The team had only eight players: Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones and Bob Cousy from the Boston Celtics; Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson from the Cincinnati Royals; Bob Pettit from the St. Louis Hawks, and Tom Gola from the New York Knicks. The tour opened in Poland and some box scores are available here. Safe to say, the Americans crushed the opposition, but there’s more to the story. 

In Yugoslavia, the hosts’ flag was waving, but “Old Glory” was nowhere in sight. If that happened again, Red Auerbach told them, the U.S. team would be a no-show. The games duly continued, to packed houses. Auerbach and John Feinstein recount the tale in Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game

Auerbach instructed Russell to guard hot-shooting Radivoj Korac. The 6-foot-10 Russell, pioneer of the blocked shot, rejected Korac’s first five shots. But Russell was not a one-man team. 

“When we went into the key, we couldn’t see the hoop, let alone have an opportunity to shoot at it,” recalled Zlatko Kiseljak. “Their point guard Bob Cousy shot his free throws with his back turned to the basket. None of us were dunking back then, and that was the first time we saw Bill Russell do it, and his elbow was above the rim.” 

This was not showboating on the part of Russell. As he often explained, a shot not released until the ball was in the basket is the best “high-percentage shot” of all. Any opponent near the basket was dangerous, and Russell set out to stop them. Despite his dominance, Russell praised some European opponents as NBA caliber. 

Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Jerry Lucas, and Oscar Robertson had been Olympic gold medalists and all eight players, plus Red Auerbach, are now in the Hall of Fame. Despite the overwhelming victories, America’s first professional dream team got little notice and has largely been forgotten. So have some of Russell’s performances off the court. 

In 1979, Russell appeared in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch titled “The Black Shadow.” In this spoof of “The White Shadow,” Russell plays high-school basketball coach Curtis Lewis. 

“Come on, coach,” says player Bill (Bill Murray), “we were better than that team. We would have won if you’d let us play five guys at a time!” Lewis responds, “You’re just saying because I’m black!”

Curtis tells a female student (Laraine Newman), “I’m crazy about you, baby!” She responds, “Ohhh, God. I mean, don’t you see? I’m 15; you’re 40! When you’re 50, I’ll be 25.” The coach “should be seeing women your own age, going out and having fun!” Coach Lewis responds, “It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?” 

The team wins a crucial game 100-99, but Coach Lewis gets fired.

“I don’t understand,” Coach Lewis says. “I paid back all the money I stole. I flushed a pound of heroin down the toilet and turned in my drug contact. I won the respect of my team and led them to victory. And now you tell me I’m fired. Why?”

“Because you’re black,” says Mrs. Crane (Jane Curtin). “Just kidding!” The theme song follows: 

He fails, not because he’s colored

but because he’s troubled and bewildered.

The team cares about him because only they

know his background.

He’s the Black Shadow.

He’s a coach in trouble.

He’s the Black Shadowwwww!

 As this skit confirms, SNL was once daring and funny, kind of like Bill Russell his whole life. Russell could skewer a stereotype with the best of them, and his sense of humor crossed over into broadcasting.  

 Paired with fellow NBA great Rick Barry, Russell once covered a game of the Los Angeles Clippers, then one of the league’s worst teams. After some 30 seconds of dead silence, Russell said, “Rick, have you noticed that the Clippers are not a good passing team?” Barry was on the floor, with fans across the nation laughing along. 

Bill Russell represented his country at a time when racial discrimination against African Americans was surging nationwide. Russell overcame that discrimination with dignity and humor, and his performance on the court remains unequaled. 

Several current stars boast multiple titles, but until someone wins a full 11, Bill Russell must be considered the greatest of all time. Rest in peace, lord of the rings. You will never be forgotten.  

About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Photo: Bettmann Collection/GETTY IMAGES

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