In the early 1990s I wrote a book on the history of big-league baseball, football, and basketball. (The homage of a lifelong fan.) As part of my research, I read about 150 jock memoirs. Of those, only two were at all interesting. Both by basketball players: Bill Bradley’s Life on the Run and Bill Russell’s Second Wind, written with Taylor Branch. Thirty years later, Second Wind remains the best autobiography by an athlete that I’ve ever read.
The public man is well known. The center who specialized in rebounds and blocked shots, not scoring points, and led the Boston Celtics to eight NBA titles in a row amid eleven titles in thirteen years. (No other professional athlete in any sport has even approached those numbers.) His career coincided with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and he often got involved—as one of the first famous athletes to risk his career by doing so.
The private man is less well known. He was deep, a reader and thinker, both book-smart and street-smart. As a teenager in Oakland, California, buried deep in adolescent angst by his height, gawkiness, and general incompetence, he found refuge in almost daily trips to the public library. The books opened wide to him and did not make fun of him or how he looked. He probably started to realize that he was smart.
With the Celtics, on road trips to New York, Russell would hook up with a tall stripper named Kitty Malone. She had a serious book habit; they filled every room of her Greenwich Village apartment. “I felt,” he realized, “as if I’d been transported back to my favorite room in the Oakland Public Library.” After sex they would talk about books far into the night. For years she sent him many volumes on serious topics, often related to the black uprisings of the times. It was his first profound friendship with a woman. (Eventually the books stopped coming. Kitty had died, perhaps in a car accident, or perhaps of a heroin overdose.)
I grew up with the Celtics’ radio broadcasts in my ear, late at night, when the radio was supposed to be turned off. I saw Russell’s first Celtics game on TV, in December 1956. He entered the game in the second quarter, looking tentative. But he learned fast. “Sure, he had quickness, reaction, all the tools he needed,” said his coach, Red Auerbach. “But most of all, he was a thinker.” If his man beat him with
a particular move, Russell filed it away, “and you’d never fool him the same way again,” Auerbach noticed.
I remember an afternoon game at the Boston Garden in about 1960. The crowd was thin and we could move down to the expensive seats close to the court. We could hear what the players were saying. At one point Russell got a rebound and looked over his shoulder to make the outlet pass, but he couldn’t see anybody in Celtics green. His teammate K.C. Jones, waiting at half court in the other direction, shouted “Russ!” He turned that way and threw his typical left-handed baseball pass to Jones, and the Celtics sprinted downcourt in their famous fast break.
Russ! So that was what his teammates called him. Armed with this arcane, privileged bit of inside knowledge, for years I had this agreeable fantasy: I would be roaming the catacombs of the Boston Garden before a Celtics game. Russell would be walking toward me, late as usual. With utter, controlled casualness, I would say, “How are you doing, RUSS?” He would smile, which he seldom did. (Hey, this is my fantasy, after all.)
His death will spawn many tributes and reviews of his life. But you probably won’t hear about Kitty Malone and the books, so keep them in mind. Books were the best part of this great man, just as they are the best part of most of us.
August 2, 2022