What was the most surprising thing you learned about Bill Russell in the course of your research?
What struck me as most surprising, as I sifted through so many newspaper and magazine articles from Russell’s days at USF and his early years with the Celtics, was his optimistic outlook. He really believed in how sport could help bring about racial and social progress, and he embraced the notion of the black athlete as a role model and “race man” — the very ideas he was seeking to deflate by the mid-1960s, when the civil rights movement spawned in him a personal crisis. When he refused to sign autographs or acted rude in public, that became his way of trying to separate the public’s image of the athlete from his own sense of himself.
One thing that wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but made more of a gradual impression, was how the Celtics adapted over Russell’s tenure. In some ways, the Russell years are three dynasties: the offensive juggernauts with Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, the amazing defensive teams of the mid-1960s, and the wily veterans with Russell as player-coach in the late 1960s. Russell is the common thread here, obviously.
What is the most important thing Roxbury (and to an extent Dorchester and Mattapan) residents should know about his relationship with the city’s black community during his playing days?
Boston’s modern African American community might not realize the extent to which Russell acted as a voice for the political frustrations of black Boston in the 1960s. Of course, the big battleground at the time was schools, and Russell attended NAACP and school board meetings, spoke at the one-day freedom schools established during school boycott days (“Wear your color like a badge,” he told students in 1963), and was the speaker at the alternate “Freedom Graduation” for a predominantly black junior high school in 1966.
This Freedom Graduation occurred during a time of massive resentment against Louise Day Hicks and the Boston School Board, and the original graduation included booing and heckling of Hicks, as well as the arrest of a protesting black activist.
Did you use the local black press much in your research?
Right around this time, incidentally, is when the Bay State Banner was established. There’s a huge headline in one of the early issues of the Banner: “Bill Russell Joins The Fight.”
Why did you choose the subject?
I chose the subject because Russell is not only one of the most interesting, but also one of the most important athletes of the twentieth century. He reflects basketball’s emergence as a big-time sport, the concerns and courage of some athletes during the era of civil rights and Black Power, the profound influence of African Americans upon the form and meaning of basketball, and the sometimes-ignored place of Boston’s black community.
The fascinating thing about Russell in relation to Boston is that his fearless honesty, his prickly public persona and his challenging politics stirred so much resentment among many whites — but they couldn’t ignore him, they had to respect him, and they had to admit that he was the leader of a racially integrated team that won, and won and won.
Before writing the book, how familiar were you with Russell, and the NBA of the Russell-Chamberlain battles?
I grew up in Winchester and was an enthusiastic kid during the 1984 and 1986 titles, which textured my love and appreciation of great basketball. I loved those teams, so I inevitably read about the great Celtics teams of the 1960s, and thus grew up knowing about Russell as a great winner then.
Do you feel black Boston felt less connected to the Celtics during the Bird era, and if so, why?
In the book, I write a little about some comments from black Bostonians at the time, who felt disconnected from a team that many Americans saw as “the great white hope,” especially in contrast to the Lakers. It’s ironic: The Celtics won in the 1960s by finding the best teammates, regardless of color, and they did it again in the 1980s — and both times faced a backlash.