Back in his playing days, Bill Russell was standing in an airport with Boston Celtics teammate John Havlicek, when a stranger walked up and asked the inevitable question.
"Say, are you a basketball player?"
"No, I am not," the towering, 6 ft., 9 in. center responded. Later, Havlicek asked him why he always said that. "Because that's not who I am," Russell replied. "Basketball is what I do; it's not who I am."
Today, four decades later, Russell is the same public-private individual: a deep, multifaceted man who seems to savor his complexity. Always introduced formally as "Mr. Russell," he meets strangers with an impassive stare and steadfastly refuses to sign autographs.
But get him talking about his days with the Celtics, and the protective shell peels away. Russell opens up like an animated encyclopedia, calling up stories of his teammates and their legendary coach, Red Auerbach. As the stories tumble forth, his eyes catch fire and he breaks into rasping, cackling laughter.
Like many a retired athlete, Russell could spend a lot of time dwelling on his accomplishments. He was named the Greatest Player in the History of the National Basketball Association (NBA) by the Professional Basketball Writers Association; he was the first African-American head coach in a major professional sport (with the Celtics); and he was the first black general manager in pro sports (with the Seattle Supersonics).
But his focus has always been on the lessons he learned with the Celtics. During a 13-year span, the team won an astounding 11 NBA championships.
Ask him about the current Los Angeles Lakers as a dynasty-in-the-making, and he breaks up laughing.
"How many titles have they won? One!
"You know, in all my years with the Celtics, I never heard that word [dynasty]. But I'll say this. Any team that thinks of itself as a dynasty will never become one."
Russell has compiled some of his favorite lessons from the hard court in a new book written with David Falkner, "Russell Rules" (Dutton, $24.95). He applies some cardinal principles from athletics to life at large, and to business in particular.
"Basketball is a metaphor," Russell writes. The bottom-line lesson in his book is this, he says: "Whatever you attempt to do, try to find out how good you can do it."
Russell was a late bloomer. He was cut from his junior-varsity team as a junior in high school and had no hope of a college scholarship. After working in the naval yards in Oakland, Calif., he finally caught on at San Francisco University - a Jesuit school with such a meager basketball program that it had no home court to play on.
It was just right for Russell. "My freshman coach in college taught me to play center," he recalls. "I knew how to play basketball, but not how to play center."
Russell thrived in college. While majoring in business, he studied art and signed up for religion classes. As a non-Roman Catholic, he relished the give and take with his professors. "I'd never met a Catholic before I got to college, and I realized I needed to get to know these people. I've always believed it's more important to understand someone else than to be understood."
It was in Boston that he met his greatest teacher, Auerbach - an ebullient, excitable coach who was thrown out of 22 games in his last year. As team captain in an era when there were no assistant coaches, Russell had to step in. It was a ready-made apprenticeship for his own coaching career.
Perhaps more than anything, Russell learned about leadership from Auerbach. Although a stern taskmaster, the Celtics' coach was a masterful psychologist too. "I needed Red to push me back sometimes," Russell says. "But he did it in a way I could understand, and I wasn't offended by it.
"He had the best set of ears that you could ever imagine. And he believed in collaborating with us. He wanted players who were problem solvers."
Bill Russell speaks ...
... on three of the current stars playing in the NBA finals. The Los Angeles Lakers lead the Philadelphia 76ers, 3 games to 1, going into Game 5 of the best-of-seven series tonight.
On Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal:
"One time in Los Angeles ... we got into a conversation about foul shooting. His critics never let him forget how much he hurts his team by not making free throws. I told him by all means to keep working on the craft of foul shooting, but to always keep the focus on what he was doing overall to help his team win games. If he got sidetracked worrying about shooting fouls, it would only undermine what he did best."
- From "Russell Rules"
On 76ers center Dikembe Mutombo:
"There are a lot of things that [fans] like and don't like that have no relevance to the outcome of the game - like how a guy looks doing what he does. Take Mutombo - and he's a dear friend of mine - nobody says that [his game] looks like artwork. But he's effective."
On 76ers guard Allen Iverson:
"Someone asked Red Auerbach about Allen Iverson, and he said, 'I'd love to coach a kid like that.' Because, of all the things they've said about Iverson - and most of it was unfair - no one ever said he didn't work hard. No one ever said he didn't play hard. And no one ever questioned his desire to win."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor