Chat Transcript: Celtics Legend Bill Russell

Bill chatted live with fans on Monday.
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Bill Russell, who was the first African-American head coach in professional sports and who led the Celtics to 11 of their 16 World Championships (nine as a player and two as a player-coach), will chat live on as part of Celebrating Black History presented by Amtrak and the Boston Celtics.

The five-time MVP, 12-time All-Star, played for the Celtics from the 1956-57 season through the 1968-69 season averaging 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds per game, and still holds the Celtics' record for most rebounds in a season (1,930 during the 1963-64 season). The Celtics retired Russell's number 6 in 1972.

Bill stopped by to chat live with fans on Monday. See what he had to say about his playing days and much much more.

Pete (Boston): Hi Mr. Russell... Based on your experiences, can you please give your opinion on why it is important for a team like the Celtics to have Black History Month events in their community?

Bill Russell: I don't know if the Celtics are unique in this regard, but the importance of Black History Month is very real. It's a great way to honor and learn about the great contributions of African-Americans to this great country. That's not just important for the Celtics, but all American citizens and all of our institutions.

Keene, NH: Mr. Russell. First of all you are a great role model for all the kids and adults out there and myself. How was it being a black young man entering a mostly white team like the Celtics.

Bill Russell: Ha (Laughing). It was interesting, to say the least. It was kinda mixed. I was born in Louisiana, and of course, I went to an all-Black school and that changed when I move to California, where I went to schools that were mixed. Then at University of San Francisco, they were almost all white. So I was used to white teammates. The only difference when I got to the Celtics was, these white guys could really, really play ball. (Laughing) I grew up in both of those worlds, and this is now and that was then.

Derek (Hong Kong): How does it feel to be the first ever African-American head coach in professional sports?

Bill Russell: Well, truthfully, it was relatively insignificant to me. I had been an assistant coach to Red, and I was a team captain. So when Red got thrown of out of the game, I would take over. And Red used to get thrown out of alot of games, seriously, I think he got thrown out of 20 games his last season, including the All-Star game! But I think being black had nothing to do with it. I think if that was the main reason why I go the job, I probably wouldn't have taken it. I was just the best man for the job, because of my knowledge of the game, abilities and leadership skills.

James, Melbourne, Australia: Hi Bill, congratulations on an outstanding career as well as the accolade of being the first African-American head coach in pro sports. My question is why during the 1956-57 season did you choose to go to the olympics, as this would be unheard of for a pro today and also, where do you rank your gold medal alongside your 11 rings.

Bill Russell: Ever since I was a kid, there were social and physical icons that I always heard about. And you think of these things in awe. And when I got to the age where I qualified for the Olympics, I wanted to go. Then, the honor of the Olympics was to compete...not to win...but to compete. I really wanted that. If I hadn't made that Olympic Basketball team, I was going to participate in the high jump. I was ranked second in the country in the high jump, so either way, I was going to Melbourne. I wanted to be a part of that OIympic experience.

Mike, Pago Pago: As I recall, you travelled to Africa back in the early 60's, long before it became fashionable to get in touch with one's Roots. How did that experience influence the way you think today?

Bill Russell: Actually, it was the late 50s. I'm not sure how it influenced my thinking, I guess, I think I've been on every continent and seen all kinds of people, in their environments. In all the countries I've been to, they all have one thing in common, they like to do: To watch children play, that is very uplifting.

REED (Jericho, Long Island): First thing-I believe that you are the best player ever. You've done it all. My question is....being big time rivals with Wilt Chamberlain, what was your relationship like with him on and off the court?

Bill Russell: One thing I want you to understand, Wilt and I were never rivals. We were competitors. In a rivalry, one is a winner and the other vanquished. Neither of us were ever, vanquished. We were both winners and successful. Wilt and I were friends, even before he came into the NBA. When I went to his funeral, his nephew came up to me, and said he had a list of people to call in the case of his death, and I was No. 2 on that list. That's Wilt and me, we were friends. We would talk and discuss things, rarely about basketball.

Danny McCarthy Salem Massachusetts: Who was your hero growing up?

Bill Russell: My father. Outside of him, my basketball coaches were great. And also, don't forget George Mikan. This was a great player, this always bothers me when people talk about the greatest players to play the game, they don't discuss George enough. One time I met him, I was third string varsity in high school, and I met George Mikan. And he walked over to me and said, "Hi, Big Fella". And he was 6-10 and I was 6-6! And here was the No. 1 guy in basketball and I was a third string guy in high school and he talked to me about basketball for 15 minutes!

Adam from NH: Hi Bill,

I was just wondering your thoughts on the play of the Celtics young guns (i.e. Allen, West, Jefferson etc...) Should the Celtics build around them? What does Boston need to do to become a contender?

Thanks, Adam

Bill Russell: I think those kids are good. But you don't build a team just around players, you build a team around the most effective players at this time and this place. If you can develop a system that encompasses a variety of styles that many players can succeed in, then you have a system that can work, not just players. That's very important. For example, going back to my Celtics teams, which is really going back. We had a system, where a drastic change was made from Bob Cousy to KC Jones, and not about talent, that is significant, the difference was the two different styles of point guard. They were completely different styles of point guards. And our system allowed for that. If you have a great forward, make the system about the forward, like with Larry Bird on the Celtics. So you're system needs to be versatile, to adjust to personnel changes. So you don't build around the player, the player and his skills kind of blend into the system of team work.

Rick Fransen (Netherlands): As you look back, which accomplishment in your career gives you most satisfaction?

Bill Russell: Hmmm. It was a fairly long career. Let me think. There were a couple of things. In 1956 we won the Final Four and then I went to the Olympics and won the Gold Medal, then I went to the NBA and won the NBA title. So in a period of 13 months, I won all three titles, which really got me accustomed to winning! By the time I was at the Celtics I was on three high school championship teams, two Final Fours, that's what they called the NCAA championship then. And then the Olympics. My 11 Celtics titles, was just a continuation. It's hard to pick up one championship, it was the whole journey. My sole motivation, was to play in my career so my father would be proud of me. That was it. He was my hero.

Bill Russell: Thanks for all the people who wrote in, to be interested in an old geezer like me. Thank you, for the interest. I had no idea there were so many people interested in what I have to say. I haven't played basketball in a long time, but I think it's the best game in the world. Enjoy yourself, it's a lovely game. Play to have fun, and secondly, see what you can learn. That's about it.


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