Remembering Bill Russell’s broadcasting career, which had awkward moments

After his playing days, Bill Russell worked as an NBA game analyst for ABC and CBS in the 1970s and '80s.

Bill Russell achieved so much on an extraordinary scale in his 88 years that ordinary but interesting phases of his life became afterthoughts.

He was a devastating, one-of-a-kind basketball force, of course, the ultimate winner, the rebounding, shot-swatting fulcrum for 11 Celtics championships in his 13 seasons. He was a trailblazer in myriad ways, including as the first Black head coach in major American professional sports. Most important, he was a resolute civil rights activist who used his prominence to fight racial inequality.

And somewhere down Russell’s lengthy list of accomplishments … he was a broadcaster.

Russell worked as an NBA game analyst for a couple of networks in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He started at ABC on its “Game of the Week” telecast in 1971, two years after retiring as the Celtics’ player-coach following their victory over the Lakers in the NBA Finals.


ABC lost the league’s national broadcast rights to CBS for the 1973-74 season. That same year, Russell became head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, a position he held through the 1976-77 season (when he coached a raw rookie guard out of Pepperdine named Dennis Johnson).

Russell joined CBS’s NBA broadcast team for the 1979-80 season, making his debut on Jan. 20, 1980, for a matchup at Boston Garden between the teams he knew best: The Celtics and Sonics.

CBS was clearly happy to have Russell aboard; play-by-play voice Gary Bender, after welcoming viewers to “Super Sunday” (the Rams and Steelers would collide in Super Bowl XIV later in the day), gave Russell a prolonged introduction that cited his familiar achievements all the way back to his days at the University of San Francisco.

When asked what it was like to be back at the Garden, Russell was ready with a quip: “Well, I was all right until I looked at this floor,” he said, pointing to the parquet, “and then I remembered how many times I ran up and down the thing, and I’m getting a little tired just standing here looking at it.”

Russell brought natural gravitas to television, but it would be dishonest to suggest he was an excellent analyst. He was true to himself as always and did not amplify his personality for the camera, a requirement for the 99.9 percent of people on sports television who don’t have the natural charisma and sense of humor of someone like Charles Barkley.


If Russell didn’t have anything to say, he didn’t say anything. If he did, he did. Those are admirable attributes in a human being, but it’s the kind of thing that will drive a television producer to drop-kick his headset during a commercial break.

In “From Hang Time To Prime Time,” author Pete Croatto’s excellent recent book on the NBA’s television and marketing history, Bob Stenner, the former lead producer for “NBA on CBS,” said Russell owned a “keen, curious mind, but his thoughtful, meditative approach wasn’t a good fit for the broadcast table.”

Russell himself had essentially acknowledged the same thing in John Taylor’s 2005 book “The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball.” Said Russell: “The most successful television is done in eight-second thoughts, and the things I know about basketball, motivation, and people go deeper than that.”

Unfortunately, Russell’s most memorable moment as a broadcaster was an awkward, awful indignity forced upon him by his clueless broadcast partners.

Early in the second half of Game 5 of the 1981 NBA Finals between the Celtics and Rockets, Bender showed Russell some candid celebration photos of the 1956 men’s Olympic basketball team, which Russell had led to the gold medal.


“Who do you think that is in that picture?” said Bender to Russell’s fellow analyst, Rick Barry.

“I don’t know,” said Barry. “It looks like some fool with that big watermelon grin back there to the left.”

Barry later apologized to Russell, and said that he didn’t know the phrase “watermelon grin” had racial connotations. But during the broadcast, he couldn’t let the bit about the photos go, even as Russell attempted to ignore him.

“All right, who is that guy?” said Bender, nearly as oblivious as Barry.

Russell looks at the monitor, looks at Bender, and raises his eyebrows slightly.

“That’s you, Bill,” said Barry. “Don’t you recognize that picture?”

Russell: “Nope.”

Stunningly, it continues from there, with Barry pointing out a “funny hat” in another picture, dismissing Russell’s suggestion that it’s actually K.C. Jones in one of the photos, and offers Russell, who refuses to look at him, more photos.

“I think we better leave it alone,” says Bender, whose tone is like a guffaw put to words.

Barry, who during his playing days was once described by teammate Billy Paultz as a player whom half the league disliked and the other half hated, didn’t get the hint.

He continues to pester Russell about the photos — in the middle of an NBA Finals game — tapping him with them and saying, “Bill! Bill! Don’t you want these pictures, Bill?”

Finally, Russell, composed but crystal clear, says, “No, I don’t want them.”


The game aired on tape delay at 11:30 p.m., so Barry’s obnoxious behavior didn’t come close to drawing the instant and deserved scorn it would these days.

CBS did drop Barry after those Finals, while Russell was paired with Dick Stockton through the 1982-83 season. Russell was replaced by a more naturally gregarious television personality for 1983-84: Tommy Heinsohn.

Amazingly, Russell and Barry would work together again. They called playoff games in tandem for TBS in the mid ’80s, with Barry on play-by-play.

The reunion suggested that Russell had forgiven Barry. It also stood as a reminder that a few minutes of tone-deaf idiocy during a basketball broadcast was far from the worst thing he’d endured.


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