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Russell's stories are Red all over

'Red was absolutely brilliant. The first thing he said is, ''I don't know everything.'' He had a great set of ears.' Bill Russell 'Red was absolutely brilliant. The first thing he said is, ''I don't know everything.'' He had a great set of ears.' Bill Russell (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)
By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / May 6, 2009
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NEW YORK - Truth be told, the famous Bill Russell scowl was just an act.

"It was all b.s.," says a giggling Russell, who is in the Big Apple to promote a new book, "Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend," co-authored by Alan Steinberg.

"It happened by accident. My leg needed to be taped up, so I walked out slowly and scowled. I saw it bothered the other guys, so I never ran again. It became part of my persona. All of this stuff is what goes into winning."

And win Russell did. No basketball player won more. An 11-time NBA champion, five times MVP, 12 times an All-Star, and considered by many the greatest team player ever. He revolutionized the game with his defense.

But Russell doesn't want to talk about his individual achievements. He quotes Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. He asks strangers about their families and laughs like a kid being tickled.

"My life has been probably more fun than anybody who ever lived," he says.

The book details his friendship with Red Auerbach, which spanned 50 years.

"I wanted to honor him and his two daughters," says Russell. "We came from two tribes. We didn't have to prove anything to anybody."

Russell was an outspoken civil rights advocate who grew up with the pain of segregation. His father and grandfather taught him to stick up for himself. He did just that during his very first NBA game in 1956.

Despite having an NCAA championship and Olympic gold medal to his credit, Russell wasn't getting the ball. Auerbach called a timeout, and Russell stayed outside of the huddle.

"I wasn't [angry]," he says. "I was assessing the situation. We had only three guys shoot the ball. I knew then that's no way to win."

Russell told Auerbach that he was the center and the ball should go through him, down low, so he could get rebounds. Auerbach listened and designed plays for Russell. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

"That was the key moment in my career," he says. "If he had not been secure in being Red Auerbach, he'd have said, 'Go get dressed, I'm the coach of this team.' But he was so secure, he'd say 'OK.'

"A team is a unit, and everyone has a part to play. I never told him how to coach and he never told me how to play. Our motivation was what was best for the team.

"Red was absolutely brilliant. The first thing he said is, 'I don't know everything.' He had a great set of ears. Red never had an assistant coach. I asked him about that. He said, 'That interferes with things because you have to coach the assistant coach.' I never had one when I coached in Boston, either."

Rough patches
Russell's time in Boston, of course, was not without its rocky moments, many motivated by racism. Once his house in Reading was broken into and the perpetrators defecated on his bed.

Russell, who fought for civil rights, once wrote that he "dislikes white people." He also claimed that he plays "for the Celtics, and not Boston," which alienated some fans.

But he wants no do-overs.

"I don't regret that, because that's the way I felt at the time," he says. "All my experiences then had been negative. I never was [angry] at Boston. That was life, and you go through life and you do the best you can."

He also never signed autographs.

Bob Cousy remembers an incident in Romania circa 1963.

"We went back to the hotel, which was Dracula's castle, a cavernous place with marble floors," says Cousy. "We come in at 10 o'clock at night. There was one other elderly couple in the place that turned out to be Americans.

"This lady gets up, she had this mink stole and she had these high heels a-clanking on the marble floors. She stood behind Russell and said she was from Boston. She says, 'Russ, you've been my hero, would you please sign this menu?' "

Russell never looks up from eating. Jerry Lucas had the presence of mind to jump up and say, 'Ma'am, you know what? Let me take this menu and I'm gonna have all the guys sign it and I'll bring it back to your table.'

"If she waited for Russell to acknowledge her, she'd still be waiting. He stuck to his guns and, hey, that's fine. It shows the kind of determination he demonstrated on the court."

Yesterday, Russell signed hundreds of autographs at Borders.

"I changed my mind," he says.

He also reflected on his perceived aloofness.

"I'm a decent person, but my idea of decency may not be what your idea of decency is," he says.

Has he mellowed?

"God, I hope not," says the 75-year-old Russell. "The first person that you must be honest with is yourself. Mahatma Gandhi said, 'I do not concern myself with being consistent. I do concern myself to be consistent with the truth as it reveals itself to me.' "

Memories, misconceptions
Russell's truth is that he and Auerbach were men of few words who never backed down.

"Red was absolutely fearless," he says. "One game, he started yelling at Wilt so much that Chamberlain went over to him, and I did, too. But Red never backed down. He said that was the way you survived in Brooklyn."

Russell says it is a misconception that he got sick before every game.

"I threw up, but I was never sick," he says. "It was a way for my body to get rid of all excesses."

He has no nostalgia for the old Boston Garden - "It was a dump" - but he acknowledged that the close seating may have helped his teammates, if not him.

"I never heard a sound, just the bouncing of the ball," says Russell. "I was always concentrating. I could just shut everything else out on the court."

The 1969 NBA Finals against the Lakers marked Russell's last - and to many, most surprising - championship. But it was no surprise to Boston's player-coach.

"I told them before the game that it was impossible for the Lakers to win," he says.

Russell had a trick up his sleeve, one that even the great Auerbach never taught him.

"We never had a play for the last shot; Red never put one in," he says. "So I said to the guys, 'I want you guys to think back to college and high school days and show it to me.'

"I picked one that John Havlicek and [Larry] Siegfried used at Ohio State. We practiced it for four hours. Sam [Jones] was always my primary shooter. He goes out to the corner and says, 'Oh [expletive].' That makes his man relax. The guy thinks Sam is out of it. But Sam continues on around a triple pick and makes the shot.

"That was one of my best moves."

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