You don't have to like sports to appreciate Bill Russell, an activist-athlete when it was hard.
By Gary Abernathy
Even to a cynic like me, Bill Russell was a special person
People who know I’m an Elvis Presley fan sometimes ask, “Wouldn’t you have liked to have met Elvis?” Not particularly. Did you ever see footage or read stories of Elvis meeting people? I would have said, “Hey Elvis, great to meet you, I’m a big fan.” And he would have said, “Thank you. That’s very nice. I appreciate that. Thank you.” And that would have been it. What would be the point? I’m a fan of his singing and performing. Meeting him wouldn’t have changed anything.
I never met Elvis, but like all people who have had careers in journalism and/or politics or other jobs where such encounters naturally happen, I’ve met many other famous people from the world of politics, entertainment and sports. Most such people were pleasant enough, but the meetings weren’t particularly meaningful to me or them. I don’t hold celebrities in higher esteem than I hold anyone else. Maybe it has something to do with my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, where it was drilled into us that the worth of our fellow human beings is not measured by earthly standards, and that we’re all sinners in the sight of God. “There is no one righteous, not even one.” (Romans 3:10). In other words, we’re all on equal footing, whether famous or obscure.
I don’t think I’ve ever made a special effort to meet anyone famous, with one exception — Roy Rogers, a childhood hero. I’ve told the story of that meeting several times and won’t repeat it today. But meeting and spending time with Roy Rogers at his sister’s home in Portsmouth, Ohio when I was editor of the newspaper there in the mid-1990s was a special day for me.
Another exception would have been Bill Russell, who died July 31 at the age of 88. He was one of the few famous people I would have liked to have met but never did. I would have enjoyed spending a couple of hours with him discussing life, philosophy, sports or the weather. In writings and interviews, he was always interesting, often humorous, stubbornly proud and painfully honest without being insulting to those whose opinions he opposed. That’s rare.
As is true for others (looking at you, Dan), I was first introduced to the inner workings of Russell’s mind through his 1966 book, “Go Up for Glory,” which he wrote while he was still playing. It wasn’t until 1969 — Russell’s final season — that I read it, when I was 13. My father recommended it to me, but I’m pretty sure he hadn’t read it and he probably thought it was mostly just a book about how to play winning basketball.
I was a budding basketball player already enamored by the sport, and a love of the game was something my father and I had in common. He followed pro basketball, unlike most sports fans I knew in southern Ohio, who were into the Cincinnati Reds, or the (new) Cincinnati Bengals or college sports. Our local NBA team, the Cincinnati Royals — as local as a team could be when you lived in rural Highland County, Ohio — was a poor draw and a distant thought for most area sports fans, despite featuring stars Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas (and, later, Nate Archibald and other fine players). Dad no doubt thought his kid could learn something about the game from a book by its greatest winner.
Sports fans know Russell’s resume. He won back-to-back NCAA basketball titles and an Olympic gold medal. He played 13 seasons in the NBA and won the championship in 11 of those seasons. Dwell on that for a minute. Only two seasons out of 13 years did Russell not walk away with the title — and he was the lead player on all those teams, not a superstar signing with an already good team just to go along for the ride and get a ring.
And spare me the argument that it was easier to win in those days. I’ll make the opposite argument — with fewer teams, you were going up against great teams and great players every night. There were no weak teams watered down by expansion. Russell played against his friend and on-court rival Wilt Chamberlain — the most dominant individual player in basketball history — 8 to 12 times each season, and almost every year in the playoffs. Russell and the Celtics always had to get past teams led by Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit, Willis Reed, Walt Bellamy, Rick Barry, Nate Thurmond — the list is long, and each year except two, Russell prevailed.
But “Go Up for Glory” was only tangentially about basketball. It focused much more on Russell’s experiences with racism and his challenges growing up poor and black in Louisiana and California, and his backdoor journey into sports. More than anything, it featured his honest and cutting insights into society. Later, I found another of his books, “Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man,” published in 1979, to be even more thoughtful.
Russell told this story: In 1956, he was asked by President Eisenhower to delay his entry into the NBA so he could represent the USA in the Olympics. Basketball was played during the Olympics in late November at the time, and in those days you could not be a professional and compete in the Olympics, something that changed in 1992 with the “Dream Team.” Russell agreed, although his delay in coming into the league also delayed a paycheck he desperately needed and cost him the Rookie of the Year award, which went to his teammate Tom Heinsohn, despite Russell being the superior player and having the better overall year (and leading the Celtics to their first championship).
Russell led the U.S. to a gold medal. After being honored by the president at the White House, Russell traveled back home by car with his grandfather, and on the way they stopped at a diner not far outside D.C., where they were refused service because they were black. Russell reflected on the paradox of living in a nation where he agreed to put his livelihood on hold to represent his country, was honored by the president of the United States at the White House, then was refused service at a two-bit, small-town diner because of his race.
Russell and his contemporaries were civil rights activists in the 1960s, when it was more difficult because the institutions weren’t in their corner and because their economic security was much less definite. Russell, at his peak, made about $100,000 a year — good money in the 1960s, but a far cry from the multi-million dollar contracts of today. The activist athletes of the 1960s truly risked their reputations and livelihoods. Today’s outspoken black athletes like LeBron James, Steph Curry and Colin Kaepernick have corporate sponsors backing them up and a sympathetic media working as almost a personal public relations arm ready to side with and defend their every utterance.
Russell, Oscar Robertson (who I enjoyed meeting once), Muhammad Ali and football’s Jim Brown knew how to separate their civil rights activism from the games or contests that made them famous. Russell and company didn’t take to the court wearing slogans instead of names on their jerseys, or have messages painted across the court, or kneel during the National Anthem. They stood for their principles publicly and proudly on their own time, but allowed fans the luxury of enjoying non-politicized sporting events.
In a 2017 Washington Post column, I made this point on why that matters:
What makes sports so popular in our culture? The answer is simple: It’s a couple of hours of escape from the real world during which people from all walks of life can forget about their troubles and cheer for a competition that, at the end of the day, is relatively meaningless.
Athletes, black or white, have every right to participate in politics and work for causes important to them on their own time. But when they bring their political statements onto the field of play or refuse an invitation to the White House, it destroys many fans’ connections to sports.
Sporting events themselves are meaningless. Russell, the greatest winner in team sports history, said so himself, remarking at the height of his career, "I consider playing professional basketball as marking time, the most shallow thing in the world."
He was right. It is that very shallowness that gives sports their tremendous appeal. When athletes contaminate sporting events with politics, they extinguish the only thing that makes sports matter: their very irrelevancy. The real world hits us in the face every day. Sports are our escape, and if fans lose that benefit from the leagues they love, the leagues will lose their fans.
Russell and most of his contemporaries managed to stand for their beliefs and make their voices heard without demonizing or belittling others — which meant that those who held contrary views still paid attention. When Russell was named the first black coach in the history of a major league sport — player-coach of the Celtics in 1966 — he recalled later (clip below) that he was asked whether he could coach without being prejudiced against the white players on the team. As Russell noted simply but poignantly, no one had ever asked white coaches whether they could avoid being prejudiced against black players. His thoughtful, subtle observations spoke much more loudly than the “civil justice” screeds on social media from many athletes today.
I strongly recommend “Go Up for Glory” and “Second Wind” to anyone interested in expanding their outlooks or just reading fascinating takes on life by a fascinating man. Bill Russell made no apologies for considering himself a basketball genius, an expert on the science and psychology of basketball, perhaps the preeminent practitioner in his field, he suggested. He was also a genius in his examination of life and culture. He was endlessly curious, and managed to be a serious man who nevertheless had an engaging sense of humor and a laugh that cackled forth with joy. He was truly one of a kind.
I would have liked to have met him and to have talked with him. But I would mainly have just wanted to say thanks.
Is Biden trying to be ridiculous, or is it natural to him?
President Joe Biden keeps putting out tweets drawing attention to falling gas prices. Does he think everyone forgets that when he took office gas was $2.38 a gallon? So now that it has fallen from over $5 a gallon to less than $4 in some places, Biden wants us to say thanks.
On Wednesday, Biden actually tweeted this:
Mr. President, please let us know when gas falls below $2.38 a gallon. Then we’ll give you credit.
No one is being fooled. It’s a little embarrassing when you’re doing so badly that the guy who inspired an attack on the U.S. Capitol and refused to accept the 2020 election results is leading you in polling for a 2024 rematch. According to The Hill:
Former President Trump leads President Biden and Vice President Harris in hypothetical 2024 presidential match-ups, according to a new Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey released exclusively to The Hill on Monday.
The poll found that if the 2024 election were held today, 45 percent of respondents would vote for Trump in a race against Biden, who attracted the support of 41 percent of respondents, while 14 percent were unsure or didn’t know.
The poll found that Biden would not only lose the electoral vote, but the popular vote, too.
And, another week, another record low approval rating:
The Gallup poll found that 38 percent of voters approve of Biden’s job as president, down from 41 percent last month. In comparison, the president started out his term at 57 percent approval in January 2021.
There are pundits who want to ascribe Biden’s low standing to everything from his age to national and world events outside his control. Here’s a novel thought: People don’t like what he’s doing or how he’s doing it.
Liz turns to Dad for last-minute help to hold onto seat
Former vice president Dick Cheney has cut a pretty strong ad in support of daughter Liz’s effort to hold onto her Wyoming congressional seat in the face of terrible polling in the upcoming Republican primary — although calling Trump the worst threat to the Republic in history is too much. What Trump did post-election 2020 is certainly worth condemning. But it wouldn’t take long to make a long list of individuals, here and abroad, who have been and are a greater threat to our Republic than Trump.
A lot of people, including me, might say that anyone advocating socialism, for instance — and there have been quite a few in recent history and still doing so today — is a bigger threat to the Republic than Trump. The fact that there are those who don’t fear our descent into socialism, or brush it off as not a threat at all, is chilling. Our political divide is illustrated by just such a debate.
I love this clip circulating of Vin Scully, the great Los Angeles Dodgers baseball announcer who just passed away, talking about how terrible socialism is.
At one time, Dick Cheney would also have likely identified advocates of socialism as our biggest threat. But the political peril faced by his daughter has gotten personal.
Liz’s problem is that she has alienated Republicans not just because of her willingness to join with Democrats on the politicized Jan. 6 committee, but also by blatantly appealing to Democrats to vote in the GOP primary to help her cling to power. Further, she’s begun adopting the language of Never Trumpers in putting down Trump supporters as not being “principled conservatives” — a condescending attitude that will hardly endear her to the voters she needs.
Liz made her decision on her relationship to Trump and Trump voters, and that is to be respected. What must also be respected is the political consequence of that decision. In today’s GOP, all the ads in the world from Father Cheney probably won’t make a difference.
If not Trump, who would be the GOP candidate in 2024?
Last week, I joined other Washington Post columnists who weighed in on Democrats likely to seek or win the nomination if Joe Biden is not the nominee. This week, we followed up with the Republican side of things, looking at candidates who would be at the top of the totem poll if Donald Trump isn’t the one.
I offered my list, and supplied a couple of comments on two names — Mike Pence and, as a longshot, my former boss, Rob Portman.
You can find our predictions and comments here.
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