I've always found the unmistakable cackle of NBA legend Bill Russell to be both slightly disarming and incredibly comforting. When I first met him, it was a wonderful revelation to me that he laughed so frequently at himself and at others -- which, in the case of our phone conversation last week occurred roughly every three minutes.
"I'm happy," said the greatest center of all time, cackling for effect. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Why indeed. Russell's impeccable basketball credentials need no introduction in this city, or any other I would hope. When you win 11 NBA championships (with an average of 24.9 rebounds per postseason game) and back-to-back college titles (in 1955 and 1956), your name is synonymous with excellence.
As a young basketball fan growing up in these parts, I was told that Russell was an intensely private, aloof, and brooding star.
There were reasons for that, my father explained. He played in Boston during a time when starting five African-American basketball players was ground-breaking. He was a proud man who, in an often disruptive racial climate, would not back down from what he believed -- ever. At times, the backlash was painful, damaging.
The climate has changed, and Russell has evolved with it. He has found ways to embrace his celebrity, even occasionally securing some financial gain from it.
Russell announced Thursday that he has formed his own fantasy basketball camp, modeled after the wildly popular event that Michael Jordan runs each summer. While Jordan has cornered the market on big-name college and pro coaches, Russell will reach back into history for his staff. He told me he has commitments from Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, and Clyde Drexler to serve as coaches for the camp, which will run Oct. 18-21 in Las Vegas at a cost of just over $15,000 per adult.
He has also enlisted Ann Meyers, one of the greatest female players of all time, and Celtics Hall of Famers John Havlicek and Sam Jones. Larry Bird has told Russell he'll be there as well, if his schedule with the Indiana Pacers permits.
Havlicek said Russell's idea "came right of the blue," but said his former teammate will prove to be a gracious and knowledgeable host.
"He's more open now than in the past," reports Havlicek. "I've been on the golf course with him and seen people approach him, and he's been quite cordial.
"Of course, occasionally they still get that stern, austere look."
The "look" was part of the aura of Russell, a dominating defensive presence whose longtime rivalry with offensive wizard Wilt Chamberlain was a dream matchup. Although the two were fierce competitors, they were also close friends. Russell said that when he would travel to Philadelphia to play the Sixers, he would often nap at Chamberlain's house, in the big man's bed, before the game.
It was not easy being a black NBA pioneer. In 1961, the year before Havlicek joined the Celtics, Boston was scheduled to play an exhibition game in Louisville, Ky., against the St. Louis Hawks. When the Celtics arrived, the African-American players learned they would have to stay in segregated hotels and would be banned from certain restaurants.
"Bill went to Red [Auerbach] and said, 'We're not playing,' " Havlicek said. "Red said, 'Why?' Bill told him, 'We can't eat here, we can't sleep here, so why should we play basketball here?' Red said, 'OK. See you back in Boston.' "
Havlicek's first encounter with Russell was during training camp in 1962. Russell was struck by the rookie's work ethic; Havlicek was taken aback by the big man's generous spirit. When Havlicek mentioned he was in the market for a new stereo, Russell, a music fan, took him all over Boston trying to find the right piece of equipment.
Their friendship blossomed from there. Havlicek recalls an exhibition game at a local high school in Louisiana before the 1964-65 season, when Russell's grandfather came to watch. He waited in the locker room while Russell and Havlicek, notoriously the two slowest Celtics after a game, cleaned up in one of those open-area high school showers.
"When we came out of the shower, Bill's grandfather was crying," Havlicek said. "Bill said, 'Grandpa, what's wrong?' He said, 'I never thought I'd live to see the day when a black man and a white man could share the same shower.'
"I never forgot that. As much prejudice as Bill might have faced through the years, you know his grandfather endured twice as much."
Jordan, Magic, and other stars who followed have commented on the sacrifices Russell's generation made to pave the way for lucrative contracts and marketing opportunities. Jordan, in fact, invited Russell to his fantasy camp last summer to tour the facility.
Russell said his campers will be housed at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas and will play at the Tarkanian Center on the campus of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (for more information, log on to friendsofbillrussell.com , or call 1-888-780-8882 ). He chose his lineup of Hall of Famers by inviting former players he knew and trusted.
"All these guys have been friends of mine for at least 10 years," Russell explained. "When I thought about doing this, I decided, 'I want to have some fun with people I like.' "
While some Celtics (e.g. Bird) abhorred rubbing shoulders with the "enemy" during their playing days, Russell said it was a fact of life in the '60s.
Shortly after the Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles, the league sent the Celtics out to California to play exhibition games and drum up interest in pro basketball in the area. The year was 1960, and the Lakers were touting a rookie named Jerry West.
"He was a good kid," Russell said. "I spent a lot of time with him on that trip. If you didn't know any better, you'd think we were all one team.
"We used to play poker every night. Red made us put a limit of 25 cents on each bet. He didn't want any fights over money, or guys building up debt. The way he set it up, you'd have to have really bad luck just to lose $5."
Russell met Abdul-Jabbar, another Lakers superstar, when he was a 14-year-old named Lew Alcindor at the famed Power Memorial in New York City. The Celtics were practicing at the school in preparation for a game against the Knicks. Russell couldn't help but notice the awkward young boy on the floor, and it reminded him of when he was a self-conscious teenager, and Hall of Famer George Mikan went out of his way to put him at ease.
"I was a 15-year-old kid in Oakland, shuffling my feet," Russell recalled. "Mikan came over to me and said, 'Hey big fella.' I was 6-6, 100 pounds at the time. He was 6-10, 280 pounds.
"I learned from George Mikan to always be nice to young kids, especially the tall ones."
Russell said he is excited about putting some of the game's greatest talents of all time together under one roof, then having them square off with their own teams of campers.
"I think all of us -- the coaches and the campers -- will have a few laughs," he said.
The big man cackled on the other end of the phone.
"You know," he said, "basketball is supposed to be fun."
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.