A Kind of Strength


June 16, 2005


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Boston was a center of student activism in the 60s, and it was common to attribute this to the many colleges there, and, more vaguely, to the city’s Abolitionist past. Something less obvious was involved as well — namely, sports.

To be a kid in Boston in the 50s was to suffer the hopeless Red Sox, year after year. Not coincidentally, the Red Sox were the last team in the majors to employ a black player. In the fall, you would watch Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson, Junior Gilliam and Willie Mays perform on the heroic stage of the World Series. The next spring, at Fenway Park, the home team would trot out another cast of plodding white guys. I know that’s a stereotype, but if you were there then you know. A fourth place finish was success. The message was not lost upon those who would become the student-citizens of the next decade.

It especially was not lost because of the counter example on the other side of town. The Boston Celtics took a lot of grief in the 1980s because their starting five included three white players. Racist Boston and all. But leave aside that those teams won three championships. It was the Celtics who drafted, in 1951, the NBA’s first black player. The team was the first to hire a black coach, and the first to start five black players. In all this one name stood out, the foil to the stupidity at Fenway. It was Bill Russell, a majestic figure, who elevated the city and the game even as he endured the ugliness of a segment of Boston’s population (one that has thankfully diminished since.)

Russell was the fruit of the Celtics’ wily coach and general manager, Arnold “Red” Auerbach. Auerbach took advantage of the racial hesitance of the then St. Louis Hawks to obtain the draft rights to Russell in exchange for two white players, and it turned out to be one of the great deals (from Boston’s standpoint) in sports history. I was too young to understand the racial dimensions. I was just enthralled that this guy played for us.

Not many things make me wish I were older. But I sometimes do regret that I didn’t come along a few years sooner, so I could have appreciated Russell fully. He had the long sad face of a jazzman, and an intensity of purpose that made you take basketball seriously just because he did. He played with economy and craft, and was dedicated totally to the team concept. When Auerbach wanted to get through to his more sensitive or hard-headed players he would berate Russell, so that they would hear. Psychologically, Russ, as Red called him, was the team.

The most remarkable thing about Russell was his defense. Most superstars regard defense as an obligation. Russell, the contrarian, embraced it. He studied trajectories and angles, and made defense the center of his game. He averaged over 20 rebounds twice, and once got 51 in a single game. (For most players, ten is considered excellent.) Rebounds mean fast breaks and easy baskets. Russell probably is the only player in the hall of fame whose signature photograph is not a dunk or a dribble, but a long angular block, in which he seems to leap outward as much as up.

Wilt Chamberlain was Russell’s arch rival, and the two made one of the great dramatic pairings in sports. Wilt was massive, seven feet one inch and a bulked-up 275 pounds. Russell was officially six-ten (though in truth half an inch less) and a lean 220. Next to Wilt he looked almost frail. Wilt actually was a thoughtful man, but he was fated to play the heavy. A kid who didn’t grasp the nuances of basketball nevertheless couldn’t miss the David vs Goliath aspect when the two took the court together, as they often did in important games.

So there was a mythic, almost Scriptural dimension when David prevailed, as he generally did. In truth it was the team of course,;and the Celtics did have a cast of greats — Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn.to name just two. But everyone knew who the anchor was. Russell played 13 seasons. The Celtics were NBA champs in eleven of those. When Auerbach retired from coaching in 1966, he passed the baton to Russ, who still was a player at the time.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that off the court, Russell suffered great indignities at the hands of Boston’s remnant ignorami. As he observed in his memoirs, some of the same people who cheered him at the Boston Garden raised a ruckus when he tried to buy a house in their neighborhood. Russell had too much pride to stop playing and too much sense of principle not to speak the truth about his experience in Boston. Talk about a multi-layered man.

A few years back the New England Patriots, the local pro football team, asked Russell to speak to the players. True to form, he offered thoughts that were out of synch not just with locker room bravado, but with the prevailing spirit in Washington as well. “When I line up next to you in the defensive line, you must have both the ability and the desire to help me,” he said. “All acts of strength are acts of kindness.”

I can’t help wondering whether Russ had more on his mind than football when he spoke those words. The nation today is led by men whose boisterous gestures of strength suggest inner doubts about it. Most of these men never served in the military with which they are so eager to associate themselves. This includes, in any but the most nominal sense, the President himself, who tries to associate himself also with the locker room bravado that he was not part of either.

It was the Chuck Hagels and John McCains, bona fide war heroes, who were not enthused about the Iraq invasion. Secure in their own strength, they felt no need to make displays of it to others. So too Bill Russell, who has no need to tell anyone how tough he was on the court. It takes a tough man to urge kindness. The chicken hawks are consumed by the need to appear strong.

Whether he was thinking consciously of it or not, Russell made a point about the national defense that the people in Washington have not much considered. It is not hard for a President to project military power abroad. Just whip up fear at home and then get the secretary of defense on the line. It is harder to build a real capacity to be defended within the nation. The Administration has tried to do it with the apparatus of the authoritarian state, as embodied in the so-called “Patriot Act”.

But this is not strength, at least as Bill Russell has defined it. If defense starts with a desire to help the person next to you and the person next to them, how can we ever be strong if the whole focus of national policy is to encourage people to think only about themselves? How can we do it if in one area after another — social security, medical care, schooling, and the rest — the governing thought is “To hell with anyone else. I’m looking after me”?. Can a nation really be defended that internally is tearing itself apart?

All acts of strength are acts of kindness. If those words make someone uncomfortable that would say a lot about them. I tend to doubt that Karl Rove is going to invite Bill Russell to address the White House political staff. Yes, you do get my drift.