Accessibility links

Breaking News

What It Takes - Bill Russell

What It Takes - Bill Russell
What It Takes - Bill Russell
What It Takes - Bill Russell
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:32:48 0:00

00:00:01 BILL RUSSELL: My life has always been like sitting on the banks of a river and watching the world go by because I was so fortunate that the first thing that I can remember was that my mother and father loved me.

00:00:14 ALICE WINKLER: That’s Bill Russell, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.

00:00:19 BILL RUSSELL: And the one thing that my folks told me, among all things: "Do not be afraid. Every obstacle that you encounter, all it does is present another opportunity." Like my father told me when I was four years old, he said, "Say you decide to be a ditch digger. Most people don’t think of that as a noble profession, quite accurately, but if you decide to be a ditch digger in this small town of Louisiana, I want people in Miami, New York, D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco to all say, 'There’s this guy in Louisiana digging ditches.'"

00:01:10 "'You have got to go down and see these ditches he’s digging.'"

00:01:15 ALICE WINKLER: Well, when Bill Russell grew up, people in Miami, New York, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and a whole lot of other places did know his name and did rush to see him, not digging ditches, of course, but outrunning every man on the basketball court, dunking, and blocking shots. Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to eleven NBA championships in thirteen years, an insane run between 1957 and 1969. He was voted Most Valuable Player in the league five times. These days, in fact, the MVP award for the NBA Finals is called the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.

00:02:02 And here’s one more thing you need to know about Russell. He was the first African American coach in the NBA and the first in professional sports of any kind, at least in modern times. So more on all of that in a moment, but going back to when he was four years old, here’s the second part of the career advice his dad gave him.

00:02:22 BILL RUSSELL: “If you take a job and they pay you five dollars a day,” he said, “give them seven dollars a day worth of work, and there are two reasons for that. One, if he’s paying you five and you’re giving him seven, you’re more valuable to him than he is to you. And second, if you are being paid five and you’re giving him seven, you can look any man in the eye and tell him to go straight to hell because you have acted in a way that commands respect, and it starts with self-respect.”

00:03:03 ALICE WINKLER: Bill Russell’s cup runneth over with both respect and self-respect, and that’s why he’s the subject of today’s episode of What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the audio archives of the Academy of Achievement.

00:03:22 I’m Alice Winkler.

00:03:23 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:03:29 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:03:34 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:03:40 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:03:48 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:03:55 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:04:00 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:04:13 ALICE WINKLER: That excerpt of Bill Russell I played a moment ago is from an Academy of Achievement Summit in 2008. He was speaking to students, as well as to leading scientists, tech innovators, political figures, poets, and writers from around the world, and Bill Russell, six-foot-nine, towered over them all. That weekend, he also sat down for a good long talk with journalist Gail Eichenthal.

00:04:38 It was a rare opportunity because, even though Russell spent time as a television commentator after he retired from the game, he’s never relished the spotlight, and so he’s never done a lot of interviews. Well, the first thing they talked about that day was Wilt Chamberlain, the other most dominant basketball player of the 1960s, also a center, and the person almost always described as Bill Russell’s main rival.

00:05:06 BILL RUSSELL: And Wilt, when he was playing in Philadelphia, we used to have a Thanksgiving night game in Philadelphia every year. At noon, he would come to the hotel and pick me up, and I would have Thanksgiving dinner with his family. You know, he had a lot of brothers and sisters, and his mother would let me take a nap in his bed after we had Thanksgiving dinner, and then he’d take me — we’d go to the game together.

00:05:34 GAIL EICHENTHAL: And try to kill each other in the game.

00:05:35 BILL RUSSELL: And as we left the home, she’d say, "You be nice to my boy."

00:05:42 ANNOUNCER: What a block by Russell! What a block by Bill Russell on Chamberlain's gunshot! Incredible!

00:05:52 BILL RUSSELL: And everybody thought for years and years that we were rivals. Well, that's somebody that didn't know either one of us. We were not rivals. We were competitors, which is a totally different thing because, in a rivalry, there’s a victor and a vanquished. Well, neither one of us fit either side of that. We were competitors that played the same position in completely different ways, and both of us had our agendas, and our agendas were to win.

00:06:30 Now, he thought — and rightfully so — that he was the greatest basketball player that ever lived, and if he went out every night and performed as the greatest basketball player that ever lived, they should win the games, so they won a lot of games.

00:06:49 My approach was, it’s a team game, and the only important stat, if you want to call it that, is the final score. That goes back into my high school and college days. At that time, it was never acceptable that a black player was the best. That did not happen. My junior year in college, I had what I thought was one of the best college seasons ever.

00:07:25 We won 28 out of 29 games. We won the National Championship, and I was the MVP at the Final Four. I was first-team All-American — averaged over twenty points and over twenty rebounds, and I was the only guy in college blocking shots. So after the season was over, they had a Northern California banquet, and they picked another center as Player of the Year in Northern California.

00:07:54 Well, that let me know that if I were to accept these as the final judges of my career, I would die a bitter old man. So I made a conscious decision: “What I’ll do is, I will try my very best to win every game. And so, when my career is finished, it will be a historical fact I won these games and these championships. And there's no one’s opinion how good I am or how good other guys are or comparing things.” And so, as I chronicle my career playing basketball — I played basketball for twenty-one — organized basketball for twenty-one years, and I was on eighteen championship teams.

00:08:42 That is my standard, playing a team game, and my team winning.

00:08:47 ALICE WINKLER: And win they did, his college team, his Olympic team, and of course, his pro team, the Celtics. Bill Russell says people still spend too much time talking about how many times they buried the Lakers.

00:09:01 BILL RUSSELL: While that is true, the other thing you have to consider is we beat everybody. It wasn’t just the Lakers. You know, if you can win eight straight championships, you've beaten everybody. That’s not one person that you said, "Well, I beat him." You beat everybody!

00:09:28 ALICE WINKLER: Frank Deford, the legendary sportswriter, said it best in a piece for Sports Illustrated in 1999. Here's what he wrote: "You can stand at a bar and scream all you want about who was the greatest athlete. The only thing we know for sure about superiority in sports in the United States of America in the 20th century is that Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics teams he led stand alone as the ultimate winners. Fourteen times in Russell's career, it came down to one game, win you must, or lose and go home. Fourteen times, the team with Bill Russell on it won."

00:10:11 Again, that was the great Frank Deford. Now, as Gail Eichenthal pointed out during her interview, a fan watching Russell play could see the sheer talent and athleticism but probably couldn't see the deep, almost scientific analysis that was behind his game.

00:10:29 BILL RUSSELL: My coach and I — I call Red Auerbach my coach. His background was math, and a lot of — we used to talk all the time about the game and life and things — but mostly equations — and when you think about the game of basketball, it’s played in a cube. There are boundaries, floor and ceiling, left, right, back and forth, and the other confinement is time. So what you do within those boundaries, with the allotted amount of time, is where the game is.

00:11:11 ALICE WINKLER: Red Auerbach wasn’t just Russell’s coach. These two men, from different generations and backgrounds, had a friendship and an alchemy that was unbeatable. It started in 1956, when Auerbach masterminded a series of trades to nab the young defensive rebounder during the NBA draft, and it continued after Auerbach passed the reigns to Russell, making him head coach of the Celtics while he was also playing on the team, but more significantly, making him the very first African American coach in modern professional sports. Here’s how it came about.

00:11:50 BILL RUSSELL: Well, my coach was my friend, okay? And we won eight straight championships, which is pretty good, and he said to me, "You know, I’ve got to find a replacement. Do you want the job?" I said, "Of course not. I've watched you go through this stuff for ten years. You think I want to try that?" He said, "Okay, I’m not going to hire a coach that you do not give me one hundred percent approval."

00:12:19 He said, "I’m not going to let some guy come in here and start messing with you." “Because,” he said, “the first thing, a guy is going to come here — and we get the wrong guy, he's going say, ‘I’m not Red Auerbach, so I’ve got to coach the way I want to coach.’” And one of the first things he’s going to attack is the fact that after I got in shape, I didn’t practice anymore, and that came about because Red and I worked out a formula of minutes.

00:12:45 And I would play the first ten minutes and sit down, the last two minutes, and three minutes between quarters, and then there are fifteen minutes between half-time. So I was playing forty-six minutes a game, and then he asked me one day what was wrong with me. I said, "I’m tired." He said, "You’re tired?" I said, "Yeah." He says, "Well, don’t practice. Everybody has a limited amount of stamina, and I have to take that into consideration.”

00:13:13 And so, he said, "I’m going to make a list of six guys, and you make a list of six guys, and we’ll find one guy that fits on both lists that could be our new coach." There was no match. So he said, "Well, I’m going to hire this guy." I said, "Oh, no. If you hire this guy" — he brought his name up — "If you hire him, I'm retiring with you." He said, "You mean it?" I said, "Yes, I do. I’m not going to play for him. I don’t even want to be in the same room with him. I'll take it."

00:13:44 “But if it doesn’t work — and we’ll see whether it works or not — we can bring in somebody else, even if it's midseason, and I will never complain, and I’ll play just as hard for him as I played for you.” Because we were both interested in what was good for the Celtics and not what makes him look good or me look good or bad or whatever. It had nothing to do with anything. That’s how I became the player-coach.

00:14:12 ALICE WINKLER: Russell led the Celtics to two more championships as player-coach, always with Red Auerbach in his head.

00:14:19 BILL RUSSELL: Well, he was very, very good psychologically. Sometimes it’d be better to get behind, and the reason for that is, when you get behind, you can get your players to listen to you and the adjustments you have to make. But if you're ahead, it's hard to get them to listen. We’d like to call it human nature, but we just call it “not all that bright.” And so, you know, there are times when the coach has to get the players to listen.

00:14:57 That is the hardest thing because every player comes there — first of all, his massive ego, by the time he gets to that level, because he's been good enough to get there, and he's comfortable with what it took to get there. Now, what you have to do is — after you get in there with all that talent — is to get him to try to improve. Never try to take anything away from his game, but add to his game.

00:15:25 You know, like, I used to break it down, like, in the pro games — 48 minutes. It takes a second, a second-and-a-half, maybe two seconds, for a three-point shot, each shot, and if you add up all the shots taken in a game — see, free throws don’t count because the clock stops. But if you take all the seconds added up shooting and rebounding, it comes to about three minutes.

00:15:59 Now, out of a 48-minute game, three minutes are concerned with shooting and rebounding. What is going on the other 45 minutes?

00:16:06 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Defense?

00:16:07 BILL RUSSELL: A whole bunch of things. You know, some of the time you’re working your offense, okay. And there are things that you do — as an individual — that you can do to impact the game without having your hand or your foot wherever on the ball. How well do you do your part when you’re nowhere close to the ball or the shot? How well do you do that?

00:16:34 ALICE WINKLER: Here’s another important topic he and Red Auerbach were in sync on.

00:16:38 BILL RUSSELL: You could never dissect a player into parts. Each player is a package, and you can’t say, “If he did this, or if he thought, or if he didn’t think, or if he tried this” — invalid and irrelevant. What you’ve got is what you’ve got.

00:16:59 I played with a guy that wore contact lenses, okay? His field of vision was like this. Anything outside of that circle he could not see. He just could not see. If you had passed the ball right here, he could not see it. Well, I would consider it a bad pass if I threw him a pass around his knees. I would not grumble and say, "Well, he should have caught that."

00:17:25 I said, "No, that’s not true." And so, when I passed to him, I tried to make sure that the pass arrived up here where he could catch it. You have to make adjustments, but you can only make adjustments that your particular team can make. You can’t say, “Well, we’ve got to do a great job defensively,” if you don’t have anybody that can play defense. And you can't say, “Well, we have to do a better job rebounding,” and you don’t have any good rebounders.

00:17:55 So what you may have to adjust is tempo, up-tempo or maybe slow-down, that — like they’re a better rebound team than you, so you can play the game so that rebounds become less important to the outcome. Those are the kinds of adjustments that your team can make, but you have to know your team. And, you see, a lot of times you hear fans talk about, “The coach is going to do this. The coach is going to do that.” Unless they’re privy to practice and conversations that go on within that team, they have not the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

00:18:34 Because I remember once, Shaquille O’Neal, a dear friend of mine — a guy was telling me that he was watching Shaquille play, and he said he saw, when Shaquille O’Neal went to the free throw line, he knew exactly what he was thinking. And I said, "That’s a crock. You cannot possibly know what he’s thinking."

00:18:58 I said, “I remember, myself, I went to the free throw line, and I wondered, ‘Is the babysitter feeding the kids?’"

00:19:13 Because sometimes you do not want to think about the task at hand.

00:19:20 ALICE WINKLER: But when the task at hand was rebounding or blocking shots, it’s hard to imagine that Bill Russell ever had anything else on his mind. His opponents didn't seem to ever see him coming, tall as he is. The only person in the NBA to ever get more rebounds was his friend Wilt Chamberlain, but no one could block a shot like Bill Russell. It was a skill he singlehandedly turned into an art form, and it changed basketball, but not at first.

00:19:49 Not when Russell played for the University of San Francisco and had his first game against the California Golden Bears. They had a well-known center, but Russell managed to block his first five shots.

00:20:03 BILL RUSSELL: So when they called timeout, they’d never seen anything like this because there was nobody blocking shots before. When I started blocking shots, I had never seen anybody block a shot. So they called timeout. They go in their huddle. We go in our huddle. The first thing my coach says to me is, "You can’t play defense that way," and I’m thinking, "Why would he say that?" He said, "This is the way I want you to play defense."

00:20:27 And he showed me right there. He wanted me to half-man him, keep this at his back, and deny the passes to him. Well, I tried that, and he had his little point guard, took one dribble to the right, dropped a bounce pass. He caught it, turned. I’m on his back, out of defense. He shoots the layup. He does that three times in a row, and my coach never said anything. That was the way he wanted me to play.

00:20:52 So I said — eventually, I said to myself, "No, not going to happen." So I went back to playing the way I knew how to play. I sat there after the game — I got three layups. I shut him out the rest of the game, okay? I knew what I had done, and I enjoyed it, no matter what anybody else on the planet said. I had tried something, and it worked.

00:21:15 As a consequence, for three years, we were in this big argument that I was a lousy defensive player because the natural — if you want to call it that — in those days was, no good defensive player ever leaves his feet.

00:21:30 ALICE WINKLER: Given how the game is played today, it’s funny to imagine that basketball players did not used to jump up to keep balls from reaching their target. Right? I mean they didn’t even count blocked shots as an NBA statistic until four or five years after Russell retired. Part of his genius, by the way, was the way he blocked shots, not just swatting a ball into the stands, but managing to control it and keep it in play.

00:21:55 BILL RUSSELL: Well, and I think that it never occurred to them that this was innovation, and I was giving them the benefit of the doubt and saying that they never expected an innovation to come out of the projects of West Oakland.

00:22:09 ALICE WINKLER: Which brings us back to the subject of racism in basketball. As Bill Russell mentioned near the beginning of the podcast, racism shaped the kind of player he would become, a team player, but growing up in the 1930s in Monroe, Louisiana, it shaped a lot about him.

00:22:27 BILL RUSSELL: Pre-World War II Louisiana — absolutely hideous place for a black man, completely and totally hideous. One of the things about most civilized society in the past has been for the men to be able to take care of their families, and that included their wives and their children.

00:22:51 Well, in pre-World War II Louisiana, that was almost outlawed. They figured a way to keep black men from being able to take care of their families, protect their families. And there was no hesitation of a white man humiliating a black man in front of his wife and kids. And so that’s was one of the things my father taught me, what I’ll never forget. He had a job, and his boss went on vacation, and so I think, in his own way, he liked my father, so he said, "Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to come and take me and my wife to the train station, and we’re going to be gone two or three weeks, and when we come back, I want you to meet the train and pick us up, but you keep the car while I’m gone."

00:23:39 So there we were, with a car. It's like — this is something that never happened. I mean a nice car, too. So what do we do on Sunday? You go for a ride in the country. So we go for the ride in the country, and we're coming home, and we stop by the icehouse. We didn't have a refrigerator. We had an icebox, and you’d buy a five-, ten-, or twenty-five-pound box of ice.

00:24:05 So we stopped by the icehouse, and we were sitting there and look in there to the guys in there, and he's got his foot on the desk, talking to a friend. He looks out and sees us and keeps talking. So we sit there, seemed like five or ten minutes. Another car pulls up with white people in it. He looks, he stops talking to his friend, goes out, and sells them ice.

00:24:31 So my father says, "Get ready to start the car." And this guy walks up to the car window and said, "Boy, don’t you ever do what you started to do." So my father, being the polite gentleman he is, got out of the car, picked up the crank, and went after the guy. And the last time I saw the guy, he was at least three or four blocks away from his icehouse on the run. So after my father chased him maybe a block or so, he came back, got in the car, and we left.

00:25:00 But he said, "I’m not going to let this guy humiliate me in front of my kids." Now, well, it is important I saw that, and I was so proud of my father. And he was showing me how to be a father, how to be a man, you know. He never would ever bother anybody, but he would not let anybody mess over him.

00:25:23 ALICE WINKLER: Another time, his mother was accosted by a sheriff because she had the temerity to want the latest fashion, an outfit that included riding boots, a little jacket, and a cap.

00:25:35 BILL RUSSELL: Well, she got herself one of those outfits, and she’s walking downtown in Monroe — West Monroe, probably — and this undersheriff stopped her and said, "You can’t dress like that. You think you can dress as good as white women. We're not going to put up with that. I want you out of town by midnight, by dark." Now, you see, he was operating on the notion that nobody could do a thing about that.

00:26:01 That none of the black men were able to say, "Don’t talk to my wife like that." But my grandfather wanted to kill him, and we had to talk him out of it, and this was not an isolated incident.

00:26:15 ALICE WINKLER: It was common enough that Bill Russell’s father decided to move the family out of the South altogether. They tried Detroit first but thought it was too cold. Then he heard there were plenty of jobs in the shipyards of Oakland, so off they went to California.

00:26:31 BILL RUSSELL: My first great adventure. My mother and my brother and I got on a train and went to California. Well, if you’re nine years old and the world was a marvelous place — if people are not attacking you or anything, it’s a marvelous place. First stop is Little Rock — I'd heard the word once ‑ then to St. Louis.

00:26:57 Then we took a streamliner from St. Louis to Denver — just fantastic! And then we took another locomotive over the High Sierras into Oakland. I just loved that.

00:27:08 ALICE WINKLER: By high school, Bill Russell had developed some height, but he wasn’t very coordinated yet. Luckily, his junior varsity coach at McClymonds High School in West Oakland was less interested in basketball than he was in developing young men, and Russell says he became one of the most pivotal influences in his life.

00:27:29 BILL RUSSELL: The coach did not like basketball, but he was a great man. George Powles. In fact, he coached, at one time: Bill Russell, first black coach of the NBA, in all the major sports; Frank Robinson, who was a teammate of mine in high school, the first black managing baseball; Curt Flood, who changed baseball and sports forever because without him there would be no free agency; and a great player named Vada Pinson. We were all in the same school at the same time.

00:28:06 ALICE WINKLER: And one of the main messages their coach instilled in them was...

00:28:10 BILL RUSSELL: It is far more important to understand than to be understood. Now my high school coach told us, "The referee’s going to cheat you, and when you guys start playing and guys find out they can’t compete, they’re going to try to pick a fight. And if you react to that, here’s what'll happen. If you fight, if you get into a fistfight, in the papers it'll be: it was a riot and you’re a bunch of thugs. So no fights."

00:28:42 “Not that” — the coach said it very clearly. "Not that I don't think you can fight because we know better. But we want to win games, and so, what we do is, when a team tries to provoke you into a fight, don’t fight, play harder. Embarrass them with the game."

00:28:59 ALICE WINKLER: It was a lesson that Russell had to put to use in college, too. USF was in a conference where there were only a handful of black players. Russell rattles off a few of the teams: Stanford had none; USC had none; Cal had one. But his team had three African American players in the starting lineup, a first. When the team traveled to Oklahoma City for the 1954 All-College Tournament, the hotels were closed to them, but it wasn’t just Oklahoma.

00:29:31 BILL RUSSELL: We're getting tons of hate mail because we had three black starters. In fact, in San Francisco, itself, the school used to get letters of complaints from local Catholic parents that the school should not be giving scholarships to all these black guys when deserving young white Catholics could be using those scholarships.

00:29:57 ALICE WINKLER: That kind of treatment didn’t demoralize Bill Russell. If anything, it strengthened his resolve.

00:30:03 BILL RUSSELL: I had an agenda, and there was nothing going to get me away from that. And my agenda was to win every game, if possible, and nothing anyone externally or internally could do to change that. And so, operating in a place where the only thing that keeps you going is you know that you are right.

00:30:26 ALICE WINKLER: Russell’s agenda would get tested again and again, even as a star member of the Celtics. In 1960, the team traveled to Lexington, Kentucky, where he and his African American teammates couldn’t get a meal. So, they refused to play.

00:30:43 BILL RUSSELL: Now, there are a couple of things about that that most people don’t know. We insisted that the white players play the game because I did not want to make it so that these white guys were taking care of the black guys. We are men who can take care of ourselves, 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, and, in fact, I applaud them for playing because I wanted us to say, "We are not going to put up with this. This is totally unacceptable, and there are no compromises that can be made."

00:31:24 And to my knowledge — I don't know if I'm a hundred percent correct, but I don't think there was another — that was the last all-white game in the NBA.

00:31:33 ALICE WINKLER: Russell was as outspoken and uncompromising as he was intimidating on the basketball court. In 1963, when Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi, Russell traveled to Jackson to start an integrated basketball camp on the city’s playgrounds. He had just won his fifth NBA championship. The following year, he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and in 1967, he sat alongside Muhammad Ali and supported his refusal to fight in Vietnam.

00:32:07 It was these actions, as well as his stature as a basketball player, that President Barack Obama highlighted when he gave Bill Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. Bill Russell spoke to the Academy of Achievement in 2008. You can find out a lot more about him on the Academy’s website,

00:32:30 I’m Alice Winkler, and thanks so much for listening to What It Takes. Our funding is generously provided by the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation.


What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.