Bill Russell: The Best Basketball Teams Master Geometry

December 1980


Bill Russell, who once dominated professional basketball, was holding court in his hotel room here.

"This is what he likes to do," said Taylor Branch, who wrote a book with him. "Sit around and talk about ideas."

Bill Russell's shoes were off, his cufflinks were unbuttoned and his lunch was disappearing by the forkful as he dished out opinions on good basketball, good marriages and good race relations.

He was in Washington to promote the book "Second Wind," which he - the fabled Boston Celtic center - and Branch wrote several years ago.

The book is a look at Russell's life. It tells of the sweet moments as a college player at the University of San Francisco and professional basketball player for the Celtics. And it looks at his gray days as a man with a bad marriage, a coaching job that gave him trouble, and the burden of keeping his private life separate from the praise and rejection of the crowd.

He has definite opinions, which he states bluntly. Instead of the usual blather, for example, about how happy he was to be at the interview, he said he really didn't care for the East Coast.

"I come East only when I have to," he said, explaining that only work - an obligation to work a National Basketball Assn. game as a CBS commentator or a promise to the publishers to promote his book - could get him out of Seattle.

The mood in his hotel room was jocular. Russell ribbed Branch, a prospective father, about his weeknights at a childbirth class. In return, Branch - the Washington writer who collaborated with John Dean on the best- selling "Blind Ambition" - ribbed Russell about how he spends most of his free time, playing golf.

The conversation quickly turned to basketball, and story that Magic Johnson, the star player for the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, would be out of action 10 weeks.

While many see basketball as a game of spectacular individual moves, Russell sees it as a geometry problem - a problem of lines, points and distances.

The game is won not by the team that has the tallest players or the best shooters. It is won by the team that masters the subtle rhythms and complex problems of getting players at the right spot at the right time.

This perspective on the game was evident in Russell's analysis of what would happen to the Lakers without their dazzling passer.

"After Magic gets back," he said, "it will take the Lakers another three weeks to get used to him again. They will have picked up other habits while he was gone. They will have stopped running as much, because with Magic out, the opportunities to run were not there.

"And maybe Magic only gets seven rebounds a game. But when he gets back in, there will be trouble underneath the basket. His teammates still will be going to positions they did when he wasn't there."

It bothers Russell that this horizontal look at basketball rarely comes through on television. Instead of showing the way the defensive team is forcing the shooter to a certain spot on the floor, TV concentrates on the guy with the ball.

"It is easy to show the ball," he said. It is his job as commentator, he said, to point out the action away from the ball that sets up the play.

While this aspect of television coverage still has a way to go, he said, it is evolving. He offered an example.

"I was doing one game, maybe Lakers-76ers, and I saw a good defensive play and I told the director to save that play," Russell said.

"But when we went back to see the tape, the whole play wasn't there. Say the play had four steps. He the director had seen only steps three and four. I wanted steps one, two, three, four.

" But the next time he'll know what to show . . . The art is not refined yet."

Bill Russell is, by his own description, a self-motivated man. He decided to become a great basketball player after having a lousy first half in a college game against Brigham Young University. And for the second half and the rest of his career he was tremendous - the best pro player ever, according to a recent poll of sportswriters.

But in 1969, when he left Boston and retired from playing basketball, he was a man without moorings. His marriage of 13 years ended in divorce. He had, he said, given little to his marriage, had "thought I could leave it as a keepsake and go about my business." He and his wife, Rose, rarely talked "like friends."

Meanwhile, on the road he went out with other women. The separation from his wife and from basketball made him take a long look at himself. He saw that the urge to compete that charged his basketball life was controlling his daily life. A discussion became an argument, a contest.

He accepted a job as coach of the Seattle Supersonics pro basketball team, but after four seasons he didn't like his team and they didn't like him.

He began to find his limits, to find out he couldn't dominate life the way he used to dominate the middle of the basketball court. He began to loosen up, to get his second wind.

The man who once dealt with the grand-scale abuses of the ego-racism in Africa and America-began to deal with his personal problems.

It was a quiet scene in the hotel room. Evening twilight filtered through the windows. And Bill Russell talked about his journey of emotions.

"My ability to trust people closed years ago when my mother died," he said. "Maybe I should have opened it back up sooner. But I kept it closed to protect myself from harm."

And as he opened himself up, his relationships with women and other men improved.

Two years ago, after a long courtship, he married Didi Ansett, 1968's Miss USA. He was attracted to her, he said, in part because, as a beauty queen, she had experienced that "skewered view of reality" that comes with being a celebrity.

The marriage caused a stir in some quarters. Bill Russell said that at one time he "hated all white people." Now he is married to one.

While nobody ever has come up to him and expressed disapproval of his marriage, Russell said he would have an answer ready for anyone who did.

"If they don't care about me as a person, about who I spend my life with, then I don't care about their measurements. I am indifferent to them."

There was some more conversation about race. It is foolish, Russell said, to pretend you don't notice someone's race.

"That is part of us. It is not something to ignore. If you ignore somebody's race, you're insulting them.

"But you can't stereotype people by it."

Basketball, he said, "had no effect whatsover" on his racial attitudes.

Russell is 45 years old, his 6-foot-9 frame is trim and he looks as though he could go back on the court tomorrow.

But he said he plays basketball now only on family occasions. Like the time not long ago when his oldest son - "he's in his 20s and he's just 6-foot- 5" - badgered him into a backyard game.

Final score: Pop 35-Son 3.

"It was 33 to nothing," said Russell, "before I let him get a shot."


FLCeltsFan said...

Second Wind is an excellent book. I really enjoyed it.

FLCeltsFan said...

Love when people equate basketball and math. good stuff.

FLCeltsFan said...

Good dad that he is, letting his son hit the last shot :)

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