A little while ago, I received an email from Aram Goudsouzian, author of King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution. He asked me something like, “Would you mind if I sent you a copy of my Bill Russell biography, for free?”
“Yes, I’d mind!” I replied. “Who wants a wonderfully-written book about the winningest basketball player ever, free of charge?”
I told Aram I’d write a book review when I was done reading, but I lied. His book was so good, so thorough, that I couldn’t possibly do it justice myself. My review would have been one sentence: Buy this piece of art, one of the greatest sports biographies ever written, or die. Instead of threatening death upon my readers, I asked Aram if I could excerpt a small portion of his introduction.
He agreed, so here it is (I promise, this will be the most interesting Celtics-related piece you read today):
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Russell defended the way Picasso painted, the way Hemingway wrote: in time, he changed how people understood the craft. Until Russell, the game stayed close to the floor. No longer. Twice Bob Pettit drove past his defender for presumably easy layups. Twice Russell pounced, redirecting the star forward’s efforts toward a Boston teammate. “I think we just witnessed the birth of a star and the start of a bright new era in Celtics history,” proclaimed radio announcer Johnny Most. “I just saw Bob Pettit shaking his head in total disgust — and that is a great sight for every Celtics fan. Bob Cousy marveled at Russel’s explosive quickness, his radical disruptions of established patterns. As Boston’s star guard walked off the Garden’s floor, he thought that the future had arrived.
Professional basketball needed that glimpse of a brighter future. When Russell joined the Celtics, the National Basketball Association owned a sweaty, scuffling, small-time reputation. The league had only eight teams — none further west than St. Louis, none in such major markets as Chicago or Detorit, and three in the small-potatoes, industrial-belt cities of Rochester, Syracuse and Fort Wayne. A cabal of paternalistic owners struggled to keep their teams afloat. NBC’s “Game of the Week” generated little revenue. Many players earned under $5,000 a year. A nascent Players Association had to beg for such concessions as a twenty-game limit on the exhibition season. Scenes of screaming coaches, incompetent referees, and brawling players sullied the NBA’s reputation. It’s critics called it a “bush league.”
The NBA was also a white league. Russell was the sole African American on the Celtics’ roster, and the Hawks were lily-white. Only fifteen blacks appeared on professional rosters that season. Here, too, Russell initiated a sea change in the character of professional basketball. More than any contemporary, he acted as his sport’s Jackie Robinson. Though not the NBA’s first black player, he became its first black superstar — the first to generate copious publicity, the first to alter the sport’s texture, the first to shape a team’s championship destiny.
Arriving in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Russell radiated this integrationist spirit. The two-time NCAA champion and Olympic gold medalist exuded a deft combination of humility and confidence. Traveling in the footsteps of racial ambassadors such as Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson, he had encouraged bigotry, but he had transcended that hatred with soaring grace. In 1956, Russell embodied the myth that sport fostered racial progress. In cultural politics, as well as basketball, he offered an icon of black possibility.
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Bill Russell last stepped on an NBA court against the Los Angeles Lakers on May 5, 1969. The Fabulous Forum showcased basketball at its swankiest. Rimmed by eighty columns, the $16.25 million edifice featured ushers in togas guiding Hollywood stars to wide, cushioned, theater-style seats. The arena epitomized professional basketball’s transformation from a marginal, regional endeavor into the nation’s third major team sport. Lucrative television contracts now attracted interest and investors. Fourteen NBA teams occupied major markets across the country, and the American Basketball Association competed for players and fans. NBA players earned lucrative salaries, flew first class, syaed in luxury hotels, and sparred with a new generation of wealthy owners. The sport had acquired a distinctly modern ethic.
Russell had grown thicker in the midsection, more grizzled, weathed by physical and emotional campaigns. He relied more than ever on guile and experience. The game had changed, too. Almost paradoxically, Russell had fed the sport’s offensive transformation. Because of his rebounding, the Celtics operated their fast break with vicious efficiency. Because of his defense, every team adapted. His leaping ability and timing had corroded basketball’s older, earhtbound patterns. After Russell, one needed to play faster, stretch the court, shoot from new spots, jump higher. The game rose above the rim. It demanded agility and speed, and it valued all-around skill. In Russell’s wake came a new generation of dynamic stars including Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain — all of them, by Russell’s last season, members of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Russell’s last contest was the decisive seventh game of the 1969 NBA Finals. The series had collected his greatest foils: six times before his Celtics had beaten the Lakers in the NBA Finals, and six times before he had vanquished his great nemesis Chamberlain. Los Angeles owner Jack Kent Cooke expected his superstars to carry the day. He ordered a spectacular victory celebration: the USC marching band, balloons released from the rafters, and an elaborate presentation of the championship trophy.
The band stayed silent, the balloons stayed on the ceiling, and the Celtics stayed champions. Boston won, 108-106. The victory polished Russell’s reputation as the greatest winner in the history of team sports. In his thirteen seasons, the Boston Celtics won eleven NBA championships. Russell provided the common thread for the greatest dynasty in the history of professional basketball. He had lent the critical element to the talent-choked Celtics teams of the late 1950s and early 1960s, spearheaded the defense-oriented squads of the mid-1960s, and player-coached a band of veterans in the late 1960s. During the league’s emergence from obscurity, Russell was its greatest representative, especially as his compelling rivalry with Chamberlain became the sport’s preeminent narrative.
In many ways, Russell had fulfilled the political optimism of his early career. By 1969 the NBA had a black majority, and fifteen of the twenty-four All-Stars were black. Basketball had incorporated an African American aesthetic: a grace, a swagger, a flourish of individuality and physicality. Young black men embraced the sport as an arena of cultural expression. Basketball and blackness had established links in the American imagination.
Moreover, as the civil rights movement triggered the destruction of Jim Crow laws and practices throughout the American South, Russell broke basketball’s racial barriers. He earned prodigious respect. He transmitted messages of black equality. He protested when he faced segregation, and he became an international symbol of American democracy, earning admiration from Australia to Europe to Africa. He developed friendships with teammates, both white and black. He lauded his coach and general manager Red Auerbach. In 1966 Russell became the first black coach of any major professional team sport. The Boston Celtics served as professional sport’s finest model of racial integration, and Russell led this athletic crusade.
Yet Russell rejected any easy political characterization. As his sport’s most respected star, the leader of a racially integrated outfit, and a key public face as basketball established its financial and cultural moorings, he refused the outlaw image embodied by such boxers as Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali. But he snapped the fetters of the established icon represented by Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson. The civil rights movement had shaped a generation with rising expectations, a generation seeking equality beyond access to a lunch counter. For Russell, the political climate prompted a personal crisis. He pondered his own worth and searched for fulfillment, sometimes sleeping only two hours a night. Off the court, he remained a black man in a racist society. Sport had delivered him fame and fortune, but he chafed at its hypocrisies, and he refused to let sport define him.
So Russell shaped a unique persona. Even as his athletic accomplishments bolstered integrationist ideals, he attacked the racial double standards of the sports establishment. He adopted a scowling, regal demeanor that contradicted expectations of black humility. He distrusted the nonviolent strategy of the civil rights movement. He denounced the racial climate of Boston. Well before the “Revolt of the Black Athlete” in the late 1960s, he questioned the liberal assumptions guiding black participation in sport.
Historically, black athletes had adopted a gracious, grateful public persona that engendered good will among the broader public. By the era of the Black Power, black athletes often embodied a greater rejection of American ideals and institutions. Russell stepped into neither skin. Instead, he revealed both the possibilities and limitations of racial change through sport. In so doing, he provoked people to consider his complicated individuality.
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“I should epitomize the American Dream,” Russell wrote in Sports Illustrated, one year after the 1969 NBA Finals. He rose from the destitute segregation of Depression-era Louisiana, from the ghetto bleakness of West Oakland, California. Despite such desperate beginnings, he earned wealth and game. He altered his sport. Led by Russell, the University of San Francisco Dons, the U.S. Olympic team, and the Boston Celtics established new standards of basketball excellence. Sports fans respected him, and many African Americans idolized him.
But Russell wrote that he should embody the spirit of democracy. Instead, bitterness crept through him. Sport provided a “sugarcoated fantasy,” masking hatred and greed. Myths of “character” and “community” and “loyalty” cloaked the exploitation of athletes and inattention to racial justice. He could not rest on his sporting laurels. He continued a jorney that began in his mind, in his understanding of himself and his history. His athletic greatness sprung from these intellectual impulses. They drove his understanding of American racial politics. More than any other athlete, he expressed the dreams of Martin Luther King while echoing the warnings of Malcolm X.
Russell’s story thus reveals the brilliance of the black fredom struggle, refracted through the prism of a commercial sports boom. The game’s most respected figure was also its public intellectual. He prodded beyond the status quo, embracing American ideals yet articulating personal anger at the nation’s persistent racism. During his reign, basketball underwent meaningful changes: a stylistic evolution, a financial expansion, a new standard of team excellence, and a racial upheaval. These changes arrived gradually and imprefectly, but together they transformed the sport’s meaning in American culture. Call it the basketball revolution — and place Bill Russell at its center.
If you’d like to buy the book, click here. If not, may God have mercy on your soul.