Former NBA Star, 'Iconoclast', Bill Russell NPR's Ed Gordon talks with former Boston Celtics superstar Bill Russell, who's paired with actor Samuel L. Jackson in a series called "Iconoclasts" on the Sundance Channel.

Former NBA Star, 'Iconoclast', Bill Russell

Former NBA Star, 'Iconoclast', Bill Russell

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NPR's Ed Gordon talks with former Boston Celtics superstar Bill Russell, who's paired with actor Samuel L. Jackson in a series called "Iconoclasts" on the Sundance Channel.

ED GORDON, host:

Bill Russell has been called the greatest winner in professional team sport and one of the greatest basketball players ever. His 11 championships with the Boston Celtics is unprecedented. While the All-Star and prolific rebounder is known for being the consummate team player, he's also known for being an outspoken individualist off the court. Tonight, Russell's career and life will be profiled on the Sundance Channel's new original series called "Iconoclasts." As a prelude to that program, we asked Bill Russell to share with us a few thoughts about his career. He told me how he was able to impact the game in an unprecedented way, by emphasizing defense.

Mr. BILL RUSSELL (Former Boston Celtics Superstar): I decided in college that I was the only proper judge of what I was doing because I knew absolutely that 99 percent of the people watching me play had no idea what I was doing. Because, first of all, I was playing the game differently than it had been played before. Because all of us, we would learn the game--in basketball, you dribble, shoot, pass. And I just made a decision when I was in high school--I saw these great players play, and I couldn't do what they did offensively. So I tried to figure out, `Now how would I guard this player?' And so I started practicing mentally and physically how to guard players from all spots of the floor.

So my personal game was defense first, and feed my offense off my defense, which was counter to all other way they entered the game. In fact, the NBA started counting blocked shots. I think it's four or five years after I retired--and not immodestly, 'cause that's not one of my character traits, for the 13 years that I played, I might have averaged around 10 blocked shots a game.

GORDON: How much of the success that you had gave you the ability to be freer with your beliefs, or do you think you would have always been this way?

Mr. RUSSELL: I think my mother gave me that, and my mother died when I was 12. Well, the first thing, you know, we all have first memories. Well, the first thing that I can remember that I remember was that my mother and father loved me. And my mother used to tell me that, `You are as good as any person in the world, but you're no better than any person in the world. And that is the way I want you to conduct yourself.'

GORDON: Mr. Russell, you've always been in the fore when it comes to race. You've always been frank when asked about it. You stood shoulder to shoulder with Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali at a time where most athletes, even as we see today, would shy away from social issues. Do you think you've had a unique perspective on race?

Mr. RUSSELL: No. When you're dealing with politics, religion, race, those things are a combination of belief and logic. And for the most time, when we try to discuss those things, we try to discuss them logically and that does not get it because those things are based on belief, which has nothing to do with logic. A friend of mine lives in Madisonville, Kentucky. His name is Frank Ramsey Jr. He's the guy that built the concept of the sixth man in NBA basketball. In fact, there's an award named after his concept. But going back, Frank Ramsey grew up in a totally segregated society. And Frank and I--is one of my best friends in my whole life because when we met and encountered each other, we both looked at each other beyond race and came to the conclusion that the other guy was a good guy. And so my life is very uncomplicated. Things I cherish the most are the friends I've made through this life.

GORDON: Bill, you've had an extraordinary career. When you look back, what do you see as first on your list?

Mr. RUSSELL: There's a 13-month period. From March of '56 to April of '57, I was on the collegiate championship team, the World Amateur Championship Team and the world's professional championship team. And that was a pretty good year.

GORDON: Many people wrote about you--using the word surly often when they wrote about Bill Russell. It seems...

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, you know, to me, when someone refers to me as surly, especially when I was young, that to me was totally and completely race-baited. The majority of society had decided on a code of conduct for minorities--or, for example, my first full year in the NBA, I won MVP. The next season in training camp--the first year of training camp, a local Boston reporter came up and said that he's got a--he's writing an article for a sport magazine. So he walks up to me and says, `How's it feel to be the luckiest man in the world?' And I says, `Oh, how'd I get to be the luckiest man in the world?' `Well, you get a chance to play with Bob Cousy, the greatest basketball player that ever lived, and you get to play with all these championship--play on this championship team.'

`So I want to start with--I want you to tell me a list of things that Cousy has taught you.' I said, `He hasn't taught me anything.' `What you mean he hasn't taught you anything?' `He can't teach me anything. He's a great player and a near-perfect teammate but he's a guard and I'm a center and I'm the best center. So he can't teach me a thing about playing center.' `Oh,' he said, `well, you get to play on these championship teams.' I said, `Hold it just a minute. Excuse me. The Celtics never won a playoff series until I got here. Now I want you to tell me who's lucky.'

GORDON: Former basketball great Bill Russell. He's featured on the Sundance Channel's new program, "Iconoclasts," premiering tonight.

Thanks for joining us. That's our program today.

To listen to this show, visit NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.