Summer Reading: Second Wind

Today's Summer Reading report covers Second Wind: Memoirs of an Opinionated Man by Bill Russell and Taylor Branch,  Random House, 1979.  In Second Wind, Bill Russell takes you back to his childhood and guides you through all of the influences in his life that molded his opinions and persona. He takes you though the pains of racism and his struggles to find himself both in and outside of basketball. The path he takes from rural, segregated Louisiana, where his relatives believe in ghosts and racism is evident everywhere,  to media superstar is a very fascinating read. Along with his personal struggles and victories, he gives you some keen insights into his Celtics teammates and the camaraderie that they shared. This is a look at Bill Russell like you have never seen him before. It is funny at times, sad at others, and always inspirational and thought provoking.  His thoughts on the idolization of sports stars result in funny anecdotes about fans seeking autographs and his struggles with  Red Auerbach  about retiring his jersey.   He is every bit as outspoken in the book as its subtitle suggests, touching not only on Russell's celebrated career as basketball player and coach, but also on subjects ranging from Vietnam to race to politics to sex to TV. The stories about the tight knit Celtic teams are great reads and give an inside look at them that you would never get otherwise.  This is a wonderful book for any Celtics fan. 

Here are a couple of excerpts from the book to whet your appetite for this great read: 

The first excerpt talks a little about Red Auerbach and Bill's special relationship with him.
For all these reasons, our motivation had to increase a little each year, which made Red's job even tougher. We were always carrying the same amount of water up the hill, but with every championship and every year the hill got a little steeper. Red was running around behind us like a madman, cussing, screaming and cooing us to the top. He had to be a little crazy.
Red and I had our own motivational dances and routines we'd go through, mostly in private. He yelled at me publicly only once - in a hotel in Yugoslavia, as I recall - and I yelled back twice as loud. It didn't work to yell at me, and he didn't have to anyway. The first half of my second season I played like a wild beast, helping the team to such a huge lead that nobody could hope to catch us in the regular season. Then Red called me into his office one day. This was to be my first pep talk, though I didn't know it at the time. "We've got the division sewed up already," he confided. "You know that as well as I do. I can understand that you're letting up a little bit because there's nothing to drive you. Well, you should be MVP in this league, and in this game you can't turn it on and off. You have to play all the time as well as you think you ever could. You know that. And I'd like to end the regular season winning big so that we won't have to do anything different in the playoffs." He went on and on, never raising his voice, alternating little morsels of flattery with appeals to my belief in excellence. That night I went out and broke the league record in rebounds.
By Red's standards, everything he did to help motivate me was subtle. Over the years we worked out all kinds of gimmicks. He'd call me into his office and ask my permission to yell at me the next day in practice, just so the other Celtics wouldn't feel persecuted. I'd agree, and the next day he'd cuss me all up and down the floor so ferociously that his regular victims like Satch and Heinsohn would feel sorry for me. Or we'd trade favors. I'd call him up and say, "Hey, man, I don't feel like practicing today. My arthritis needs some treatment." I hated practice.
"You want to go to the library, darling?" Red would growl.
"I didn't say that." I'd laugh.
"Okay," he'd say, "but you owe me one."
A month or so later we'd be out on a road trip facing a game that Red wanted to win extra bad, and he'd call me over in the locker room. "You owe me one, right?" "Yeah." "Well, I want it tonight." And he'd get it. It was only fair.
Over the years, Red worked me over regularly. He'd make a casual remark to me about how well someone on an opposing team was playing. I wouldn't say anything, but the remark would fester in my mind because I didn't think the guy was playing that well, so I'd work extra hard the next time we faced that player's team. Only later would it hit me that Red's remark hadn't been casual after all. Everything he did was calculated. As I got to know him better I'd laugh whenever he started telling me that Bill Bradley was the greatest college basketball player who'd ever played. This meant we had a big game coming up with the Knicks and Red wanted me to help Satch guard Bradley. We'd both know what was going on, but it didn't matter.
Red didn't have to work hard to appeal to my pride because I was basically self motivated. I showed up ready for (almost) every game, and all I needed were occasional boosts. An unusually high percentage of the Celtics were the same, driven by something inside of them that didn't need much outside fuel. Cousy was that way, and so were Sharman, KC, Ramsey, and Havlicek. Sam Jones was a special case, but his motivation als depended largely on himself. There is no question in my mind that we won championships because so many of us had so much confidence that the air was thick with it.

Here is Bill's take on winning and what made the Celtics a winning organization.

In order to win you have to get yourself past a lot of things that may not be vital to winning but make you feel good, like scoring a lot of points. You have to forgo the pleasure of proving a point, because what somebody else wants you to prove may be inconsistent with the way you should play to win. At first this idea was difficult for me to accept. When I came into the NBA, it was widely believed that any big player had to be able to shoot well from the outside like Dolph Shayes, Tom Heinsohn, and Bob Petit. If he couldn't, coaches, writers and fans would shake their heads and say, "He can't play." That's what they said about me when they saw that I couldn't make shots from twenty feet, so naturally the one thing I wanted to do was stand outside and shoot twenty footers. I missed almost all of them, of course, and when I did people shoot their heads and said, "See what I mean? He can't play."
After a few kind words from Red Auerbach, like "Russell, what the hell are you doing shooting from way out there, besides making a fool of yourself?" I realized my stupidity and left those shots for Bill Sharman. That lesson was relatively easy because I couldn't make those shots; it was much harder to learn not to prove things that could do, like blocking hook shots. In the NBA back then, a hook shot was considered almost unstoppable. I could block one, but I had to learn that proving it was not the point. Blocking hooks to show that I could do so would be bad strategy on my part. For one thing, I didn't want players to stop taking hook shots, which they might if it became known that I could stop it; for another, I'd already learned that you don't try to block every shot. What you try to do is intimidate your opponent with the idea that you might block any shot. Knowing which shots to go after is one of the most difficult arts in defensive basketball, and it contributes a great deal to winning games. But proving your point about hook shots is not part of the art.
None of the Celtics, least of all myself, eliminated completely all those little personal goals that can interfere with winning. But we didn't have to. For my first few years I looked at the numbers after the game because I wanted to lead the league in rebounding. Cousy wanted to lead the league in assists. Sharman wanted to lead the league in free throw percentage. Heinsohn wanted to lead the league in field goal attempts, and Red wanted to lead the league in technical fouls and fines. The good thing about it was that no two Celtics had the same boal and that nobody was trying to play the wrong role.
Professional athletes, being competitive and vain, usually find it difficult to accept limited roles, but the Celtics were wise enough to know how important it is. Sam and KC Jones knew for a certainty that neither one of them would ever start as long as Cousy and Sharman played, but they accepted their roles because we were winning. Similarly, Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek were better players than the various Celtics who started ahead of them, but neither of them fussed. Instead, they made the sixth man part of the language of basketball. They were perfect for the part because they were hybrid players, not pure guard or pure forward. Havlicek was so good and so durable in this role that if I were playing in an imaginary pick up game among all the players I've ever seen, he's the first one I would choose for my side. I used to worry that hew was too much of a team player, if that's possible, and that he would overreact to suggestions about what would help the team. For the first part of his rookie season, Havlicek was so unselfish that he would always pass the ball, even when he was wide open. He thought a team player is one who passes all the time, which is not true. A team player is simply one who does all he can to help the team win. This may mean shooting more, rebounding more, sitting on the bench more - anything. The whole team, including Red, urged Havlicek to shoot more, and when the message finally got through, he went out one game and put up forty two shots! It was some sort of team record at the time, and we teased him about it for weeks. (He was usually on the receiving end of Celtic humor.)
Red would never let things get far out of focus. He thought about winning more than I thought about eating when I was little. He ached when we didn't win; his whole body would be thrown out of whack when we lost. He didn't care about any player's statistics or reputation in the newspapers; all he thought about was the final score and who had helped put it on the board. He was our gyroscope, programmed solely for winning, and it was difficult for any of us to deviate from the course he set for us.
Red has always been one of the most single minded men I've known. Suppose by the 1990's, I were to become the first black president of the United States, had cured cancer, has won the Nobel Peace Prize and had picked up a dozen Oscars in my movie career. If someone were to ask Red about me, he would say, "Russell? Oh, yeah! He played for me. A great player. I don't care how old he is, he could still play better than any of them out there now." Under similar circumstances, I think he'd say the same of Cousy, Heinsohn, Sam Jones or KC.
But being single minded about winning didn't mean that Red knew only one road to travel. He was always coming up with a thousand angles. He was open with us about some of them and secretive about others, but that was all right. What really mattered was that we trusted him; we knew his anctions were directed solely toward winning and not out of some petty grudge against one of us. We also respected his intelligence. Red is not someone you would wish to have leading a platoon against yours in a war game. He had just enough imagination to discover what he needs to win but not enough to slow him down daydreaming on the way. He'll get there quickly and come up on your blind side.
It was just as important taht Red respected our intelligence, too. He was smart enough to know that you can't win without intelligent players, so he acted as if he had what he needed. We didn't harbor any rocket scientists on the Celtics, but we had a lot of players who were smart about the game. I don't believe that a championship caliber player in any sport can be stupid about the art and war of his game. He may not speak the same language that most professionals do, and he may not have a lot to say to people outside his game, but within his world he will be an advanced student. This has to be true, because physical abilities are relatively equal at the top of professional sports. One the Celtics, we believed that the principal difference between good teams and great ones was mental toughness: how well a team could keep its collective wits under pressure. That's something no coach can give you. In each split second a basketball game changes as fast as ten rapidly moving objects can create new angles and positions on the floor. Your game plan may be wiped out by what happens in the first minute of play. The coach can't be out there; the player has to see what is going on. More, he has to predict where a pattern of action will lead, and then act to change that pattern to the advantage of his team. Teams that can do this under the greatest pressure will win most of the time. Red gave us credit for understanding that different players had to play different roles in order to win. We couldn't expect to do so if each player took on the identical role of scoring as many points as possible, hoping that ours added up to more than our opponents'. One of the first thing he told me when I joined the team was that he was counting on me to get the ball off the backboard and pass it quickly to Cousy or Sharman for the fast break. This, plus defense, was to be my fundamental role on the team, and as long as I performed these functions well he would never pressure me to score points. He also promised that we would never discuss statistics in salary negotiations.
This one conversation accomplished as much as a whole season's worth of tactical coaching. It showed me that Red knew what he was talking abut; he was asking me to do what I did best, and at the same time what the Celtics needed most. In addition, he removed a lot of the pressure I felt about scoring more. All that was to the good. If he'd said to me, "What we need from you is twenty five points a game," I might have been able to do it, but we wouldn't have won much.
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