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King of the Court

King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution

Aram Goudsouzian
With a Foreword by Harry Edwards
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 448
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt7zw4g8
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  • Book Info
    King of the Court
    Book Description:

    Bill Russell was not the first African American to play professional basketball, but he was its first black superstar. From the moment he stepped onto the court of the Boston Garden in 1956, Russell began to transform the sport in a fundamental way, making him, more than any of his contemporaries, the Jackie Robinson of basketball. InKing of the Court, Aram Goudsouzian provides a vivid and engrossing chronicle of the life and career of this brilliant champion and courageous racial pioneer. Russell's leaping, wide-ranging defense altered the game's texture. His teams provided models of racial integration in the 1950s and 1960s, and, in 1966, he became the first black coach of any major professional team sport. Yet, like no athlete before him, Russell challenged the politics of sport. Instead of displaying appreciative deference, he decried racist institutions, embraced his African roots, and challenged the nonviolent tenets of the civil rights movement. This beautifully written book-sophisticated, nuanced, and insightful-reveals a singular individual who expressed the dreams of Martin Luther King Jr. while echoing the warnings of Malcolm X.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94576-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. FOREWORD
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    Harry Edwards

    I have known Bill Russell for more than forty years, and for the past thirty years, I have featured aspects of his life and career as study segments in my sociology of sports classes. So when I was asked to write the Foreword to the present book, my initial reaction was that, based on the title, the author had undertaken a daunting, if not impossible task—to elucidate in a single volume the lifeandthe basketball legacy of the most illustrious icon in team sports history. Such would be the challenge of judiciously exploring the understated intellectual brilliance, the...

  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    Bill Russell first stepped on an NBA court against the St. Louis Hawks on December 22, 1956. Boston Garden quivered with anticipation. Tucked under the clattering trains of North Station, the smoky, creaky arena filled with more than eleven thousand spectators, almost double the typical Sunday afternoon crowd. The fans were excited but curious, unsure what to expect. Russell had piloted the University of San Francisco to a fifty-five-game winning streak and two NCAA championships, and he joined the NBA after winning a gold medal at the Melbourne Olympics. The Harlem Globetrotters had offered him riches. The Boston Celtics secured...

  7. 1 Russell Moves
    (pp. 7-21)

    Every man draws a line inside himself, according to Charlie Russell. A black man in the Jim Crow South needed that line. From childhood he absorbed cruel lessons about the potency of white power, the futility of black ambition, the hovering menace of violence, the intricate codes of racial behavior. A man survived by acquiescing to the system. But a man’s soul survived by defending his dignity. When pushed too far, a man pushed back.¹

    Charlie’s father Jake once drew his line while sharecropping in the northeastern Louisiana delta. After one harvest, Jake told his landlord that he would not...

  8. 2 Big Man on Campus
    (pp. 22-38)

    In September 1952, Bill Russell trekked across the Bay Bridge to the University of San Francisco. Though only fifteen miles from home, the gangly eighteen year old entered an alien universe. Incoming freshmen had to wear initiation sweaters, perform tasks for upperclassmen, and don “dink” hats until the Freshman Smoker at the end of the month. Russell stuck out—in its first issue the student newspaper labeled him “a potential Globetrotter.” Some Hispanics and Filipinos dotted the sea of white faces, but Russell and fellow basketball recruit Hal Perry represented the entire black population of the freshman class.¹

    Russell arrived...

  9. 3 Russell Rules
    (pp. 39-54)

    “We want the Dons! We want the Dons!” chanted six hundred fans as the NCAA champions landed at San Francisco International Airport. The team, clad in green blazers, descended onto the tarmac. A pep band wearing mariachi uniforms— “The Tooter Rooters”—belted out the USF fight song, while a middle-aged woman banged a drum with her purse. Russell emerged last, wearing a bowler hat and a huge grin, holding the game ball high in his left hand. Kids encircled him. He called the celebration “the greatest experience ever.” Then horns blared as cars, festooned with green and gold streamers, followed...

  10. 4 The Amateur
    (pp. 55-70)

    The summer before his senior year, Russell received an invitation from Dwight Eisenhower. The president asked him to a luncheon with a galaxy of sports stars, including Willie Mays, Gene Tunney, Hank Greenberg, and Bob Cousy. In July 1955 the athletes—selected to represent various sports, different racial and ethnic groups, and both professionals and amateurs—heard a presentation about the deficient physical fitness of American youth. The ceremony suggested the cold war implications of sports. Eisenhower bemoaned a “very serious” crisis: children who shunned athletics might become juvenile delinquents, and the military rejected the physically unfit. The president suggested...

  11. 5 Big League, Bush League
    (pp. 71-85)

    “These boys are real big, ain’t they?” said Russell while watching the St. Louis Hawks and Fort Wayne Pistons. “I don’t mean in height. I mean in width.” Before signing with the Celtics, he and Rose had attended a December 18 doubleheader at Madison Square Garden. The game was both rough and fast. While absorbing poundings, the players raced up and down the court. St. Louis scored thirty-one points in the first quarter. “This ain’t possession basketball,” he said. “This sure ain’t.”¹

    Russell had seen an NBA doubleheader during USF’s 1955 trip to New York. This time, however, he studied...

  12. 6 The Man Who Must Be Different
    (pp. 86-101)

    “Boston has been wonderful,” proclaimed Russell after the 1957 championship. “I feel as if I’m home.” He owned a new status and security. The Celtics split $18,500 in play-off money. Russell then earned extra cash on an All-Star barnstorming tour. One day after Game Seven, the players boarded a train headed west. They played in Des Moines, Denver, Provo, Salt Lake City, and Spokane on consecutive days. The tour ended in California.¹

    Because he had left USF sixteen credits short of graduation, Russell had planned on staying in the Bay Area for summer classes. He intended to waive his scholarship...

  13. 7 Goliath’s Shadow
    (pp. 102-115)

    The rare sellout of Boston Garden on November 11, 1958, had little to do with the Celtics’ game against Minneapolis. Most arrived for the first half of the doubleheader, featuring the Harlem Globetrotters and starring Wilt Chamberlain. The Celtics watched, too. They oohed and aahed by the first minute, when Chamberlain elevated for a thunderous slam. They watched him score fifty effortless points, and they predicted greatness. “What are you trembling for?” someone joked to Bill Russell. The Boston center tried summoning words to describeChamberlain: “How do they say it, devastating?”¹

    Russell and Chamberlain were already linked in the public...

  14. ILLUSTRATIONS
    (pp. None)
  15. 8 The Mystique
    (pp. 116-131)

    Russell once called sports a mixture of art and war. They adopt political and spiritual dimensions. They stir the passions of participants and observers. They provide heroes and villains, rules and rituals, insurmountable obstacles and improbable triumphs. Sometimes, Russell recalled, a few men played with such beauty and passion that “the feeling would spread to the other guys, and we’d all levitate. Then the game would just take off, and there’d be a natural ebb and flow that reminded you how rhythmic and musical basketball is supposed to be.” These moments of transcendence suggest basketball’s larger appeal. More than baseball...

  16. 9 Family Man
    (pp. 132-147)

    After the 1962 title, Russell drove his two young sons to Louisiana in his brand-new, steel-gray Lincoln convertible. He carried $2,000 in his wallet. He owned five NBA championships, three MVP awards, and one of the richest contracts in professional sports. Yet upon crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, few restaurants or hotels accommodated blacks. “Daddy, can’t we stop?” the kids asked. “Daddy, I’m hungry.” They slept one night in the Lincoln. Russell foamed with frustration. Whatever his wealth, whatever his fame, he lived with Jim Crow.¹

    In West Monroe, Russell avoided his mother’s grave, as always. He still felt abandoned by...

  17. 10 His Own Little Revolution
    (pp. 148-163)

    Hope and gloom, faith and doubt, kinship and isolation—these antithetical notions all collided within Bill Russell. His struggles for self-definition sharpened a complex political voice.

    Just weeks after his homage to Bob Cousy, Russell again expressed faith in his fellow man. On May 16, 1963, five hundred residents of Reading attended a testimonial banquet for “Bill Russell Day.” The town selectmen, the family pastor, club officials, Johnny Most, and many of Russell’s teammates commended the Celtic superstar. Rose received a charm bracelet. Tom Heinsohn had never seen him so emotional. “One of the greatest achievements a man can attain...

  18. 11 Russellphobia
    (pp. 164-178)

    On Labor Day of 1964, while vacationing on Cape Cod, Walter Brown died of a heart attack. The funeral procession stretched a mile long. Despite founding the Celtics to fill empty arena dates, Brown had shepherded sport’s greatest dynasty. “The Celtics—the very name implies basketball supremacy around the globe—stand as the most towering monument to a man who thought he had devoted his life to hockey,” wrote Jerry Nason. Arthur Siegel lauded Brown’s support of Russell’s battles against Jim Crow, adding that “his Celtics are living exponents of the theory that all men are created equal.”¹

    Brown’s passing...

  19. 12 The Hidden Fear
    (pp. 179-193)

    After 1965, Russell never again won MVP, and his Celtics never again won the Eastern Division. Yet they remained the NBA’s benchmark throughout the decade. Early in his career, Russell had complemented a cast of scorers. Then, his defensive domination established a new team identity. Now, his Celtics upheld their standing through institutional memory—the guile, grit, and poise to grind out championships. Absent overwhelming talent, they won titles by painting beautiful details.

    Victory enhanced Russell’s status, as did his continuing contrast to Wilt Chamberlain. During the summer of 1965, Chamberlain mulled an offer to become a professional boxer. He...

  20. 13 Boston Is Dead
    (pp. 194-208)

    Through sport, Russell embodied the triumphs of the civil rights era. His leadership of the Celtics, his heroic image vis-à-vis Wilt Chamberlain, his rewarding relationships with teammates, and his ascension to player-coach represented the pinnacle of basketball achievement. Yet Russell also established an intellectual independence. He had questioned nonviolence, assailed white liberals, and condemned prejudice in a northern city. As black nationalists now sensationalized that critique, Russell possessed a distinctive political voice, both liberal and radical, magnified by his stardom and refined by his intelligence.

    On June 1 and 2, 1966, Russell joined twenty-four hundred delegates at “To Fulfill These...

  21. 14 The Lighthouse
    (pp. 209-222)

    Three generations of Russells convened in the fall of 1967 for an exhibition against the St. Louis Hawks in Alexandria, Louisiana. Mister Charlie drove from Oakland, stopped in Monroe, and rode one hundred miles south with his father. Although the Old Man had never seen a basketball game, he seemed more interested in the corroding color line. He looked without success for a colored section, a colored restroom. Mister Charlie tried explaining basketball’s subtleties, but the Old Man asked only one question: “Do them white boys really have to do what William tells them to do?”

    After the game, they...

  22. 15 Grand Old Man
    (pp. 223-237)

    By 1968 George Plimpton had boxed Archie Moore, pitched against the National League All-Stars, and quarterbacked the Detroit Lions. NowSports Illustratedsent him to training camp with the Boston Celtics for another experiment in “participatory journalism.” The patrician writer had never played much basketball. When finally allowed into an exhibition against the Atlanta Hawks, he recalled “a certain amount of feckless charging about, usually with my back to the ball in the hope no one would ever throw it to me.”¹

    Plimpton never polished his basketball skills, but from the first practice, he glimpsed the austere, straightforward existence of...

  23. 16 Color Man
    (pp. 238-251)

    Soon after the 1969 title, Russell walked into Auerbach’s office. “Red, I’ve had enough,” he said. “I’m going to hang ‘em up.” Hoping that his star might reconsider, Auerbach convinced Russell to postpone any decision. So Russell drove to Los Angeles with his official status in limbo. He stayed with Jim Brown, visited theMike Douglas Show, and stayed mum on his future. On June 13, theBoston Herald- Travelerreported that Russell was abandoning basketball for Hollywood, citing an anonymous friend from a late-night card game. Auerbach denied it. Russell had promised that if he retired, he would first...

  24. 17 Seattle’s New Dictator
    (pp. 252-266)

    In Russell, Seattleites foresaw more than a basketball coach. Their city had undergone traumas: massive layoffs at Boeing, demonstrations at the University of Washington, unrest in the predominantly black Central District. They craved a unifying figure, an icon of importance. Russell heralded a surge in civic spirit, racial harmony, and national relevance. They watched reruns of his television show, laughed at his telephone commercials, and gobbled up t-shirts, books, and posters produced through Russell’s Kenyatta Corporation. They loved that he conducted practices in local high schools. They appreciated his admiration of their tolerant spirit, his promise “to be a citizen...

  25. 18 Russell Redux
    (pp. 267-282)

    “My life is the best it’s ever been right now,” insisted Russell after his dismissal from the Sonics. He planned to stay in Seattle. Karen attended an excellent public school, and he cherished her stability. He golfed whenever possible, though he never took lessons and seldom went to driving ranges. More than competition, golf delivered recreation and comradeship. He had invested sport with everything and dismissed it as nothing, but he now understood sport as an institution like politics, religion, or art—capable of noble truth and base hypocrisy, awesome beauty and crude hatred. Teammates and competition had rewarded him,...

  26. NOTES
    (pp. 283-372)
  27. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 373-412)
  28. INDEX
    (pp. 413-423)
  29. Back Matter
    (pp. 424-424)