[In the fall of 1968, most of the NBA preseason buzz was directed at Wilt Chamberlain and his defending-champion Philadelphia 76ers. Were Wilt’s Sixers, with their equal parts veteran and young talent, the NBA’s new dynasty? Others seized upon the arrival of New York Knicks rookie Bill Bradley, now sarcastically known as “Dollar Bill” for his record $500,000 rookie contract. Any descriptor with a million bucks was hard for most working-class sports enthusiasts to digest, as was the launch of the American Basketball Association, a second pro basketball circuit, which had already snatched up NBA star Rick Barry and showered him in cash and privilege.
But the magazine Pro Basketball Illustrated, 1967-68, found the space to reflect with Bill Russell on his first season as Boston’s player-coach. Popular perception dictated that Russell had broken American professional sports’ longstanding coaching color line. Technically, he hadn’t. Pop Gates, for example, coached the National Basketball League’s (NBL) Dayton Rens in 1949. And, starting in 1959, John McLendon roamed the sidelines for the ill-fated American Basketball League’s (ABL) Cleveland Pipers, owned by the young George Steinbrenner.
But the Boston Celtics and the here-to-stay institution of the NBA (which, of course, grafted in the remains of the NBL) were a whole different kettle of fish. Bob Hoobing, a reporter for the Associated Press and later Boston Globe, did the honors. I’ve deleted several paragraphs of extraneous information toward the end of the article. Otherwise, Hoobing’s piece works as a fine source of background information of Russell’s thoughts at the time and the difficulties of serving as both player and coach.]
“I handled the game the way I wanted it done. If I had to go through last season all over again, I’d play it the same way.”
Thus, super-center Bill Russell—the man who brought a new concept of defense into the National Basketball Association a decade ago—passed judgment on the 1966-67 rookie coaching efforts of William Felton Russell, the bearded brain of the Boston Celtics.
Specifically, Russ was commenting on a question concerning the most frequent criticism directed at him. The rap reads something like this: “No man, even Bill Russell, can properly handle the dual role of player-coach in the final few minutes of a game when the outcome is so often decided, when critical substitutions must be made and when the player handling these problems is tired.”
It proved to be a bad knock.
Lost in Philadelphia’s record 68-13 dash to the [NBA] championship was the fact that Russell’s rookie campaign as Boston boss produced a 60-21 mark despite some nagging injury problems. Only twice before the history of the NBA had a team won 60 or more games in a regular-season. Both times, it had been the Celtics—with Russell the key figure roaming the pivot as the Giant Intimidator.
Both Red Auerbach, now the club’s general manager, and Russell finished second to Philadelphia in their first season coaching Boston. But look at the difference in the winning percentage. Auerbach was 39-30 for .565 in 1950-51. Russ’ forces clicked at a .741 rate.
Auerbach didn’t have a fellow named Russell playing for him in his inaugural. “I’ll repeat what I said before about this job,” says Russell. “The best player I’ve got is me. So, I’m the one I have to bear down on the most. Russell has to show me a lot this year. He was my biggest problem last season. He still is.”
Does Russell feel that he and the Celtics didn’t get enough credit for their 1966-67 performance, which was overshadowed by the 76ers in archrival Wilt Chamberlain’s finest hour?
“No, I don’t think we were unjustly treated,” says Russ. “We were treated as well as any second-place club is treated. The name of the game is win. You just don’t expect to get much attention if you don’t win it all.”
Russell, of course, has led the Celtics to nine world titles in the preceding 10 seasons. The only time Boston was dethroned in that span came in 1958 with the final playoff series knotted 2-2 when the former University of San Francisco and U.S. Olympic ace was forced to the sidelines by an injury.
When Auerbach decided to step down as the winningest coach in pro basketball history to concentrate on his general manager’s duties, he had not been keen on the idea of a player-coach.“I was never high on a player-coach,” Red said. “There’s too much to do. A center has enough to worry about with elbows in his eyes. It’s tough to keep track of the bench at the same time.”
Russell’s first reaction had been: “After seeing Red’s aggravation on the bench, I never thought I would want to coach.”
But, above all, there has always been a fraternal, family feeling about the Celtics. The only outsider considered as a possible candidate for the job a year ago was Alex Hannum, the balding, bellowing genius who was to lead Philadelphia to the world championship, dethroning Boston along the way. All the other candidates were ex-Celtics—Bob Cousy, Frank Ramsey, Bob Brannum, Bill Sharman, Russell.
Owner Marvin Kratter liked the idea of Russell as coach. Russ switched from an earlier negative attitude and decided he could get the job done. “Actually, by the time I told Red I wanted to take the job, I thought I had everything in proper perspective,” Russell recalls. “I had given much thought to the problems which would arise, so I wasn’t really surprised that one phase or another was easier or tougher than I had imagined.
“There was only one thing that was really much more difficult to handle than I had suspected. That is when you have to cut the squad down. The thing is that I happen to like basketball players. Most of them are really nice guys. I don’t like to have to take them aside and tell them, ‘You can’t make it.’
“Look, you figure some of the rookies who reported to the camp were just 13 years old when we first became champions. They had grown up with the Celtics. Any one of these boys wanted to become a part of the team and its winning tradition. Then you have to tell him: ‘I’m sorry, you can’t make it.’
“What would I have done differently if I had that first year over again? I’d want to win some more games,” said Russell, leaning back in the office chair with a loud guffaw.
“Seriously,” he continued, “I’d probably try to pay more attention to try and give some guys more individual attention. Some guys have to work harder, whether it’s for physical reasons or attitude. You have to take into consideration personalities. Find out what a guy responds to and use it.
“You mention Tom Sanders and the fact that he didn’t play much in the playoff series with Philadelphia. This is one of the things I didn’t do well—stimulate individuals. That was one of the qualities Red had that was so good.
“It isn’t just taking Satch aside for talks and pointers. It’s a complete program. Sanders had trouble with sore legs last year. No one brought that out publicly. The guy had to play when it hurt. This is an area in which I have to do more.”
Russell had become the first Black man to be named to a top-level coaching position with a professional major league club. Had he felt, even subconsciously, an added push to try harder in such a situation?
“Not at all,” says Russell, one the most-forthright athletes anywhere. “I felt no more pressure. I had no more urge. You see, I know who I am.”
Several times last season, Auerbach verbally climbed all over Russell’s critics and said: “I think the man has done a tremendous job.”
Russell wasn’t nearly so pleased. At midseason, he commented: “That’s nice of Red to say, but I don’t buy it. We should be doing better. We didn’t have Bailey Howell or Wayne Embry last year. And Red had more injuries than I’ve had. I think we should be doing better.”
Of his own game in the pivot. Russell said: “I think I’m playing as well as ever.”
Russell wasn’t kidding. He actually showed a better overall performance carrying the added coaching duties than he had the previous season without them. How had Russell fooled the detractors who had misread his character?
“They underestimated my ability to concentrate,” Russ says. “I never expected coaching to interfere with my playing, because I knew how well I could concentrate out there. It’s something I’ve practiced, believe it or not.
“You’ve got to remember that I’ve spent my whole basketball life out there on the floor. I never spent much time sitting on the bench next to Red, with him saying, ‘Watch this’ or ‘notice that.’ I was always out there, seeing the game as it looks on the court. Even now, when I do sit down for a while, it takes me a few moments to get reoriented to the way things look from the side.
“So, I made up my mind. Once the game starts, I’m thinking as a player more than as a coach. Sometimes we’ll have a timeout, and I won’t say anything at all. If one of the other players has something he wants to point out, I want to hear.”
Russell quickly found his toughest task was in making substitutions at the right moments. “I made mistakes at first,” he admits, “mostly in recognizing when a man needed rest. Also, you know, not all players can play together—styles clash, some combinations don’t work. Well, I prepared myself for that, spent all summer thinking about it. But still, adjustments had to be made.
“And you have to understand what it’s like on this club. There are no prima donnas, and there never were. Walter Brown, who owned and built it, was a tremendous influence. And then Red—he simply wouldn’t allow anyone to get too big. And I wanted to be the same way.
“In fact, I’ve had to tell the other players, ’If you’ve got something to criticize about me or how I’m playing, get it out—tell me off, don’t hold it back. I’m not above it.’
“We’ve been close as players. We still are close. I can still go to a party with the rest. I don’t have to prove my manhood to anyone. I just have to be myself and be right.”
Despite the fact Russell had a brilliant record in his rookie coaching season, his detractors were numerous. Auerbach admitted people “were waiting for him to fall on his face.”
“I expected criticism,” Russell reflects. “It really didn’t bother me. Over the years, when has anyone had the chance to criticize me before? I’m an individualist. I don’t walk to the same drum as others. Whether the criticism is just or not makes no difference. To me, the only criticism that would be important would come from Red.
“Yes, I think some of the criticism stems from the fact I’m Black. The remarks of some are made on a racial basis, no doubt of it. But that can be overdone, too. It’s the easiest thing in the world to say they’re saying or writing a thing because of race. Much of it is because of my personality.
“There are sportswriters who have never tried to talk to me. One writer I’ve seen come into the dressing room countless times. He walks right past me and goes directly over to talk to John Havlicek. With his back to me all the time, he sometimes backs up close and tries to listen in on what I might be saying to some other writers. Yet, he never once has talked to me.
“This is significant. If someone wants to call me a sonofabitch, I want him to say it to my face. If I feel the same way about him, I’ll tell him.
“Clif Kean of the [Boston] Globe had a story some time back about me changing my unlisted phone number frequently and being hard to reach. I’ll take it from a guy like Clif. He has always confronted me directly with what he thinks. It’s the easiest thing in the world to be anonymous.”
Chamberlain publicly knocked Russell’s dual role. He said he felt the Celtics had the better team during the last season, but the 76ers had better coaching. “I think it’s almost an impossibility for Bill Russell to exert himself physically and mentally and also make the proper coaching calls. I’ve said it to him,” Wilt commented.
“I will always respect a man’s right to his own opinion,” returns Russell.
When the press quoted Celtic Larry Siegfried and Sam Jones as suggesting playing and coaching both were too much for Russ, their boss said simply: “I’d be a hypocrite if I ever clamped down on one of my players for sounding off. I always spoke my mind as a player, so I couldn’t criticize anyone for doing the same thing.”
If these were Russell’s friends, he also knew how to make them toe the mark. He used the player fine with the same stinging effectiveness as had Auerbach. One cornerstone of the disciplinary system—pay a fine of $1 per minute for being late to practice.
As the end of the season neared, someone asked if Russell might step aside to concentrate as a player and have Auerbach coach during the high-tension playoffs. “Red and I never talked about such a possibility,” said Russ. “I’m the coach. They’re stuck with me for better or for worse.
“Red didn’t give me the job just because I had been playing with the Celtics for 10 years. He made me the coach because he thought I could handle it.
“The only thing that irritated me this year was people saying that I wasn’t really the coach. I missed a practice one day, and a writer claimed Auerbach should fine me. That guy obviously thought I was just a figurehead—that I wasn’t really the boss. Well, I took this job to be in complete charge, and that’s the way it’s been.”
“Russell’s done a better job than I dared hope for,” said Auerbach. “He made some mistakes early, but that’s to be expected. In the last two months of the season, he was fantastic.”
Russell set the tone at the annual break-up dinner. The sensitive man who had sobbed out of love for his fellow players following championship clinchings was the perfect opposite in defeat. Sometimes somber, sometimes laughing. He assumed a quiet, firm, dedicated attitude, saying the team had done its best and would simply do better in 1967-68.
Auerbach took the occasion to call his decision to make Russell coach “the best I ever made. The big reason why he did such a good job was the fact that his was a happy club. But they aren’t happy losers and don’t have to cry their title was stolen.”
. . . Russell was openly chastised recently by Auerbach after the coach, Siegfried, and Sam Jones were pictured riding on motorcycles in town. Asked if he wanted to comment, Russell replied: “The motorcycle, like anything else, is as safe as you make it. Handle it properly, and there is no problem. They talk about defensive driving. You really must drive defensively on a cycle. After all, if you tangle with the car—you lose. Both my wife, Rose, and I have helmets. I know what I’m doing.
“This is all part of the living in a fishbowl. If one of my neighbors (in the suburb of North Reading) had done the same thing, there would have been no fuss. One of these days, I’ll escape from the fishbowl.”
Prior to last season, Russell had signed three-year contracts at a reported $125,000 to both play and coach. During the playoffs, they were scrapped in favor of one-year renewals. “I got just though one-year agreement at my own request,” Russell said. “There are two different contracts involved. I just wanted the chance to reassess the situation every year.
“When I first came into the league, it never occurred to me to ask for a no-cut contract. I think too much of the Celtics and too much of myself to do anything like that. Well, a multi-year coaching contract is the same as a no-cut.
“Before I signed for three years, they asked me to do it for that time. I will never ask for a multi-year contract.”
And the Celtics will never get a more dedicated coach.