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Remembering NBA legend Bill Russell

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Bill Russell, one of the most iconic players in pro basketball history, died Sunday at the age of 88. Russell was a big man who was the game's first noted shot blocker, and his rebounding and passing made him the ultimate team player. He led the Boston Celtics to eight straight NBA titles, 11 in all in his 13 seasons. He was a five-time league most valuable player. In 1967, Russell became the NBA's first African American head coach when he replaced Celtics coach Red Auerbach. Russell served as a player coach for three years.

Russell had an uneasy relationship with Boston fans. In 1987, his daughter wrote an essay detailing the racism Russell had faced, including racist vandalism visited upon the family home in 1960. Russell refused to sign autographs, and when his number was retired by the team in 1972, he insisted it be at a private ceremony at the Boston Garden. Russell was also active on civil rights issues. He joined the 1963 March on Washington and was in the front row for Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. He went to Mississippi after civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Terry spoke to Bill Russell in 2001, when he'd published a book called "Russell Rules: 11 Lessons On Leadership." Russell began by talking about how the Celtics developed defensive skills among their players.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BILL RUSSELL: We had a drill that we would put our hands out in front and move them away, left hand go left and right hand would go right. And see how long - how far you could take them and still see them, both at the same time. And you see, so that if I'm in the right position using my peripheral vision, about 90% of the time I can see all 10 players and two or three referees.

TERRY GROSS: Well, let me put this into play for a second. Say, I mean, you led the NBA in rebounding for several seasons. Say you're getting a ball on the rebound, and you're using your peripheral vision to see where the rest of your team is so you can figure out who to tap the ball to. Tell me what's going through your mind, what you're doing physically and mentally on this rebound.

RUSSELL: Well, first of all, to get the rebound, I try to get to position before the shot's taken. You see, if you watch a player, see, you have to count on players being good, first of all. And one of the things that make you good is consistency. So when I say, for example, I see Jerry West setting K.C. up to take a jump shot from the right side. Well, I know most of the time, if he misses where the rebound's going to go because he's consistent. I have to count on his greatness. So I started going to where his misses go. OK.

Now, when you mentioned I get a rebound, I've collaborated with Cousey or K.C. or whoever my point guard is. When the shot's taken, they had to go to an open spot, either on the left side of the right side, which we've talked about before. And so I use my peripheral vision as I make sure I got rebound first. And then I look out the corner of my eye. And if we're at home, I look for a white uniform in that spot, just the white, the color. Or if we're on the road, I look for the green. And so all I know is I see that green just as the color. I don't have time to focus in so that I can see the whole person. And then I just - most of the time before I landed, I would have passed the ball to the uniform. And that would start our fast break. There's only one problem with that, though.

GROSS: Yeah.

RUSSELL: I don't get to shoot very much, right? Because by the time I get to the top of the key from the defense, K.C. or Cous (ph), they've gotten one of the guys a shot. 'Cause we used to get a shot - when I was having a good rebounding night defensively, we were shooting most of the time within 6 seconds. And they didn't wait for me (laughter). And every player likes to shoot.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your approach to blocking your greatest opponent, which was Wilt Chamberlain. He was 5 inches taller than you were. Now, you had the ability to jump. How did you use jumping and anything else that you could do to block Chamberlain?

RUSSELL: Well, one of the things that I learned maybe in high school or in college, that when people should jump shots, for example, or most of the shots now very rarely do people shoot standing still without jumping. Now they shoot - sometime they shoot a three-pointer without jumping. But most of the shots are jump shots. Well, when you jump to shoot, you cannot jump as high as you can. Because if you do, you won't be able to shoot at the end of the - at the height. 'Cause, see, the shot starts in your feet and flows up to your body. And these are your fingertips. They may sound - Terry, but it's the truth. And so most guys that are good jumpers would jump as high as they - maybe half as high as they can jump when they shoot offensively. The defensive player is not under those constraints. He can jump as high as he possibly can because he doesn't have to shoot at the end of the jump.

And so when Wilt would take his jump, his fadeaway jump shot, first of all, I was left-handed. And so I didn't have to reach across my body to get to his right hand. So I picked up 3 inches right there. Then I could jump as high as I possibly can. He's limited to how high he can jump. So I pick up another 3 inches. So now I'm up with the ball. Now - but with him, if I did that too often, that would not be a intelligent thing for me to do because with all his physical talents, he was also very, very smart. And so if you did something to stop him, what he wanted to do, he would make adjustments. And you did not want him to make an adjustment.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: So what I would do sometimes is, rather than try to block the shot, is when he's setting up for the shot, push him another 2 away from the basket. That changes the angle. It's very, very minor, but it changes the angle. And so he's shooting from a different angle. And that would throw off the shots half of the time. And so he's shooting and he's making some and he's missing some. But he - I want him to have the thought that it's just because he's just shooting - not shooting good, not that I was harassing him because I didn't want him to ever think that I was harassing him because that would not be a good idea.

GROSS: Now, it sounds to me that you take a very analytical approach to the game.

RUSSELL: Well, I wouldn't put it all, like, intelligence (laughter). You got to remember now, this is not rocket science.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RUSSELL: This is a game that kids play.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: In the days when you and Wilt Chamberlain were playing, and part of your job was to prevent him from scoring, could you have become friends with him off the court? I mean, would you ever hang out together? Or was it best for you to not really get to know him as a friend and as a person so that you could just be more kind of cold and calculating on the court and not...

RUSSELL: Well, a couple things. First of all, I never tried to stop him from scoring. That would be a bad idea 'cause first of all, I would be doomed to failure. To stop him from scoring - that wasn't going to happen. What - my ambition was to make him less efficient. Say if he gets 45 points...

GROSS: Oh, right, right, right. Yeah, stop him from scoring as much.

RUSSELL: ...If I can get...

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. That's what I meant. Yeah.

RUSSELL: Right. If he gets 45 points, if it took him 40 shots, then I've had a good night.

GROSS: Right.

RUSSELL: You understand me?

GROSS: Yes.

RUSSELL: OK. As for a friend, for five or six years, we had a Thanksgiving night game in Philadelphia at Convention Hall. You know where that is?

GROSS: Mm hmm.

RUSSELL: OK. In the middle of the afternoon, Wilt would come to the hotel, pick me up, and we'd go to his house. You know, he came from a large family - six or seven kids, you know? And I would have Thanksgiving dinner with his mother and father, his sisters and brothers. And then his mother - bless her - would let me go and get in his bed and take a nap. And then we'd go to the game and just kick the hell out of each other (laughter).

GROSS: And that was OK? It didn't prevent - it didn't, like, inhibit your ability to kick the hell out of him after, you know, his mother made you Thanksgiving dinner?

RUSSELL: No. And it didn't bother him either. He didn't mind kickin' the hell out of me. In fact, one of those one of those nights, he got 55 rebounds...

GROSS: Right.

RUSSELL: ...Against us. And so he had no - he was not inhibited in any way, shape or form or fashion because, you know, when we got on the court, we were determined to outplay each other.

GROSS: Right.

RUSSELL: Now, the outplaying each other was for him to do what he did for his team as well as possible and for me to do what I did for my team as well as possible, which were two different things. That's why I never - and he agreed - we never considered each other rivals. We could consider each other competitors because in rivalry, one guy beats the other guy. In competitiveness, we were both enormously successful.

DAVIES: Bill Russell speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2001. Russell died Sunday at the age of 88. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROPELLERHEADS SONG, "TAKE CALIFORNIA")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to the interview Terry Gross recorded in 2001 with Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell. He died Sunday at the age of 88.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, you were Boston's first African American star athlete. And I think - when you joined the Celtics, I think you were the only African American on the team for a short while. Is that right?

RUSSELL: Just for one year. You know, it's funny that with the Celtics...

GROSS: Yeah.

RUSSELL: ...Within the organization, that was never an issue.

GROSS: What about outside the organization, in Boston?

RUSSELL: Well, at that time in the United States of America, that was very difficult. Now, we're talkin' 'bout...

GROSS: What year are we talking? What year did you join?

RUSSELL: I joined '56-'57 season. Now, this was like seven years before the '64 Civil Rights Act and before the Brown v. School Board. This is before all of those things. And in this country at that time, it's very uncomfortable for African Americans in all walks of life. What made Boston unique was that in Roxbury, over 90% of the African Americans lived within two or three miles of each other. But that was also true of the North End with the Italians and it was also true in Southie with the Irish Catholics. And then there was Brookline with the Brahmans. And there was a phrase they used to use, that the Cabots only talk to the Lodges, and the Lodges only to talk to God.

GROSS: Right.

RUSSELL: And so - and then you had the Jewish community. And so all these communities were separate. And they were equally mean to everybody (laughter), you know? And so it was like - it was more than just a race thing. It was also a cultural and religious thing. And so - and I spoke about it. But I'll say this. The only reason I spoke about it in Boston was that's where I was living. You understand? I wasn't in San Francisco talking about Boston. I wasn't in Cleveland talking about Boston. I was in Boston talking about Boston. You understand me?

GROSS: Yeah. Now, what about the fans when you were playing? Did you feel that the fans in Boston were with you, or did you feel that, like, white fans were uncomfortable rooting for a Black player?

RUSSELL: To a certain degree - and that still exists. What happened is, for example, my second year in the league, I was the most valuable player. And in those days, the MVP was picked by the players. So my peers picked me as the most valuable player in the league. The all-league team was picked by the writers. I was second team all-league. So now, with my peers, I was the best player playing. But with the writers, I was just sixth or seventh best player playing. And so the fans - which, quite understandably - they said, you know, that's the way it is, you know? I'd always played to try to win every game. But of course, I had found earlier in my life that these awards and things were extremely political. That's a polite way of saying it. And I would never let people that really don't know what's going on define to me or assign to me a place in history.

GROSS: Right.

RUSSELL: None that I would accept. You understand me?

GROSS: Yeah.

RUSSELL: And so that I have a sense of self that I know what I did, how I did it and what I accomplished.

GROSS: Here's a really important question. How do you feel about the longer, baggier shorts that players wear today compared to the shorter, tighter ones that players wore in your day?

RUSSELL: Well, see, when we were young and energetic and the young ladies could see our thighs...

GROSS: Yeah.

RUSSELL: ...We thought that was very attractive (laughter). But do you know how the long shorts came to be?

GROSS: No. No, I don't.

RUSSELL: Well, that's another thing we can thank my good friend, Michael Jordan. What happened was when he went to the Bulls - now, this is a story that I've been told. When he went to the Bulls, he was - like all of us, he had some superstitions. So what he did was he wore his North Carolina Carolina blue and white shorts under his Bulls shorts. And so every time he'd fall or go do something like that, you could see the blue underneath. Well, from what I hear, Commissioner Collins says, hey, listen, that's out of uniform. You cannot have that showing. So rather than stop wearing his shorts, he had his Bulls shorts made longer so they would cover up the blue. And so when Michael starts wearing longer shorts - and Michael was the man - and so everybody started wearing it. Hey, if Michael's wearing them - if it's good enough for him, if that works for him, maybe I'll try it. It might help. And so all these guys are getting long and longer shorts. But they have a limit, you know, on how close they can be to the knees and all that kind of stuff. I just think it's amusing as heck, you know?

And (inaudible) - you know, in this culture, we have a hair thing, you know? It's like when Bill Walton was really playing great at Portland, he wore a ponytail and a beard, and people were up in arms about that, you know? Athletes are not supposed to do that. That's for the hippies, you know. And then when I was a rookie, I hadn't started shaving, so I had a beard. And you have no idea how much conversation about the beard, which had nothing to do with anything. And now these guys are wearing these - they call cornrows. And the white guys can't do that. But when I was playing, a lot of the white guys grew crew cuts. I couldn't do that.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: And so, you know, it's like - I just - it's so funny to me when I see things that people get upset about.

GROSS: And how things go in and out of fashion.

RUSSELL: Yeah. Yeah, you know?

GROSS: Bill Russell, one last question. Can you still jump? Do you have any reason to jump?

RUSSELL: I jump for joy sometimes because that's an integral part of my life. One of the first things that I remember as a kid was running along and just jumping just for the joy. I think jumping is really, really, really important part of our psyche. You can jump for many reasons, you know, and it's an expression. And so now I don't try to dunk anymore. I go for more pedestrian type of activities nowadays. So I'll - there's a place where I - if I have to get from one place to the other, I'd rather walk than run. So then when I get there, I can do whatever I want to do instead of having to sit down and rest for 10 minutes.

GROSS: Right. Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

RUSSELL: Terry Gross, you have no idea what a thrill it is to converse with you.

DAVIES: Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. Russell died Sunday at the age of 88. Coming up, we remember musician and folklorist Mick Moloney, who revived long-forgotten Irish songs. And Ken Tucker reviews "Renaissance," Beyonce's first studio album in six years. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WYNTON MARSALIS AND THE LINCOLN CENTER JAZZ ORCHESTRA'S "JUMP START - THE MASTERY OF MELANCHOLY: JUMP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.