My basketball career began in that large space where our living room ran into the dining room. I “shaped” a coat hanger into a goal and hung it on the facing above the opening between the two rooms. I bounced a tennis ball off the floor, feinted left, deftly moved around Wilt Chamberlain and banked a right-handed hook shot off the “backboard” and through the coat hanger for the winning basket.
Of course, it looked like an ordinary living room. But don’t be deceived by the mundane. I was thundering down the court in the Boston Garden. And I’d just won another championship for the Celtics.
I moved the big chair out of the way, rolled the braided rug up so the ball would bounce better off the wood floor and pushed the dining room table near ’bout to the opposite wall to make room for my landing after another driving lay-up.
And I wasn’t Kesley Colbert back in those days. Good golly no! He wasn’t worth a hoot on the basketball court. He couldn’t shoot. He couldn’t dribble with his left hand. His bounce pass looked like a wounded duck ricocheting off the stereo…
I was Bill Russell.
This was in 1958. We had just gotten a TV. And somehow the Celtics always seemed to be playing on the game of the week. I liked Bob Cousy in the back court. And the big forward, James “Jungle Jim” Loscutoff, had the best name on the team. And one of their players, Gene Conley, also pitched for the Milwaukee Braves in the off season, which made him a special athlete for sure…
But the guy for me was Bill Russell. He just played harder and better than anyone I’d ever seen. He was an easy pick; even when our black and white TV couldn’t show how distinctly his white number 6 stood out against the Celtic green jersey.
I soon grew into those pick-up games at Paul David Campbell’s house. He had a real basketball goal by his driveway. I announced before every game that I was Bill Russell for the day. I wasn’t left-handed. I wasn’t six feet, nine inches tall. I couldn’t play defense. I had no “above the crowd” hook shot. And I wasn’t black.
But I was the very best Bill Russell that I could be.
You would think him to be an unusual pick for a hero in the Deep South in those segregated days of 1958. But it was a no brainer for me. I was a kid for goodness sakes. I didn’t know or care about racial stuff. I liked him. It was that simple.
I was Stan “The Man” Musial when we played baseball. I was J. C. Caroline (a running back and later a defensive back for the Chicago Bears) when we played football. And it was always Bill Russell when I was on the court. And they are still my “go to” guys to this day.
Don’t you love the world through an eleven-year-old’s eyes…
When I (barely) made the high school team a few years later I was too afraid to ask Coach John Camp for number 6. He tossed me 34. And then ran us up and down that gym floor till I was stepping on my tongue. I realized after the first week why you don’t see any fat basketball players!
Coach Camp became way more than a basketball coach. He expected excellence out of you the first day you walked onto the court and then DEMANDED you get better each day for the rest of the season! You think about that. It spills over into every aspect of your life.
Bill Russell had that drive for excellence. It was so obvious a young West Tennessee lad spotted it years ago. And tried to emulate it all his life!
I didn’t exactly cry when I heard the news that, at age 88, Mr. Russell had passed away. But I came awful close. I “picked” him in 1958 as one of my all-time favorites and neither one of us ever wavered.
He never let me down. I never stopped loving him.
You might have heard some of the accolades paid to him by famous athletes and other noted people this past week. He won basketball championships in college, on the Olympic team and as a professional player like a duck takes to water. His quiet dignity and solid stand for civil rights in this country are well documented.
His individual achievements and honors, on and off the basketball court, are unparalleled by any measuring stick you want to use. A giant truly has fallen among us!
So you see how my tiny tribute fails to measure up to the man. But he absolutely touched my life, my being and my heart.
And that is a treasure I will carry to my grave...
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here