Red Auerbach managed to beat everyone and everything except the grind. All those game nights, commercial flights across the country and back, scouting in the summertime and then fall training camp to launch yet another season took its toll a lot more than inhaling the smoke from his trademark victory cigars.
The Boston Celtics’ patriarch decided to finally step down as coach in 1966 … but not before chatting up the person he always consulted with whenever it was about something big.
His conversation with Bill Russell, from various accounts, went like this:
“Bill, you think Cooz (Bob Cousy) would be a good coach? (Tom) Heinsohn? What about (Bill) Sharman?”
“Those are good choices.”
“There’s someone else: How about you?”
The NBA back then wasn’t the complicated, detailed and hierarchy-layered machine it is today, where coaching candidates go through a gauntlet of executives and a battery of tests to dissect their smarts and strategy and fit for the job. In the case of Who Will Succeed The Legendary Red Auerbach, it was even more simplistic and automatic:
Bill Russell was the only logical choice.
In retrospect, his ascension might seem odd. Not only did Russell never serve any time on the bench in any capacity, he was still a player and the centerpiece of the Celtics’ dynasty. As a coach, he’d be a complete neophyte who’d also double as a player. Which of course made all the sense in the world to anyone who knew the Celtics and Russell.
“Yes, I’ll do it,” Russell said, giving Auerbach the answer he wanted.
That began a clean succession from one Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coach … to one who’s about to get inducted into the Hall — where he’s already taking up space as one of the all-time great players. Russell joins Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman and Lenny Wilkens as the only NBA players and coaches in the Hall of Fame (Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden is also double-honored for his work.)
Russell only coached the Celtics for three seasons (1966-69), winning championships in two of them. That ratio can’t be beat in any sport. He had command of the locker room as a coach and stood tall among his teammates as a player, and the results from that double-duty reflected as much.
Russell also became the first Black coach in any American professional team sport. In the smoldering 1960s, where racial unrest raged at times in a decade of Civil Rights awakening, this was no small thing. The meaning of it all definitely registered with Russell, a man of great pride, and how he was put in position of authority and placed in charge of a Celtics team with five white players and six Black players (not counting him).
“When I was appointed coach of the Boston Celtics, the players accepted me with no antagonism at all,” Russell said years later. “They respected me as a player and my knowledge of the game and they played as hard for me as they used to play for Red Auerbach.”
Being a player-coach, unheard of today, wasn’t exactly a novelty then. There were five player-coaches in the 1960s and Russell’s former teammate, Bob Cousy, even came out of retirement to hold those dual roles for one season with the Cincinnati Royals. The last player-coach the NBA will most certainly ever see was Dave Cowens, briefly, with the 1978-79 Celtics.
Essentially, the player-coach signaled for any substitutions from the floor and drew up strategies during timeouts, as any coach would. Wilkens held that role with the Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers and he laughed recently at the thought of that happening today.
“No chance,” Wilkens said. “There are too many reasons why that wouldn’t work now. But it worked for me and Bill because as players we had the respect of our teammates. We were still very effective as players, and we were natural and proven leaders. And in Bill’s case, he was the leader of the Celtics from the time he joined the team and the main reason they won all those championships.”
There was another unusual Celtics arrangement with Russell that’s totally foreign now: He didn’t have any assistant coaches. Today, a typical team might have seven assistants (who can’t fit on one bench together), each with specific duties. Russell had a staff of one. He coached the guards and the big men, ran all the practices, called the timeouts and drew up the plays. (Larry Siegfried, a reserve, did help with some bench duties.)
Russell did listen to his players and took their opinions and advice to heart. He said at the time: “The players know I have a lot going on in my mind and I appreciate the help. I’ve never tried to prove that I’m a big genius and I’ll accept all the help I can get from the players. If something’s not right, let me know. I don’t like to single out guys in public. I know all these guys and there’s no point to that.”
Don Nelson, one of the few surviving members of those Russell-coached Boston teams, enthusiastically confirmed Russell’s ability as a coach. Speaking recently from his home in Maui, Nelson — also in the Hall as a coach — said the arrangement with Russell was “ideal.”
Added Nelson: “He was the whole package — great guy, great player, great coach. I don’t know how much better it can get than that. A lot of people say great players don’t make great coaches. But Bill Russell was the antithesis of that. He had greatness in both areas.
“It was the perfect scenario for Red to step down and Bill to take over. He was the most important person in the franchise, and he wanted to do it. He was great to play for. I loved that guy.”
Curiously in Russell’s first season as coach, the Celtics didn’t win the title. They lost in the playoffs to the Philadelphia 76ers and Wilt Chamberlain, the only time Russell would taste defeat against his rival. Boston then delivered back-to-back titles in 1968 and ’69, the last of which was somewhat surprising.
The ’69 Celtics began to show their age and clearly, the dynasty had wrinkles. They won “just” 48 games and weren’t the favorite heading into the playoffs. Russell at 34 wasn’t dominant and the league saw younger big men — Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Nate Thurmond among them — challenge Russell nightly.
Russell averaged a career-low 9.9 ppg (although he did post 19.3 rpg) and fought through knee issues. The Celtics barely survived the Knicks to reach The Finals, and once there, fell behind 2-0 to the Lakers of Chamberlain and Jerry West.
Yet somehow, Russell won his 11th ring after Boston took a thrilling Game 7.
Nelson said: “He played so many minutes and played so hard that he developed hamstring issues. That last title was so hard, it was in L.A. and everything was against us. It took its toll on everybody and probably more on him than anyone.”
A fierce competitor who never relaxed against the other team, Russell had a far different demeanor when it came to coaching his own team. Nelson said Russell wasn’t strict or over-the-top demanding; quite the contrary, actually. In some ways, Russell still considered himself one of the guys, which, of course, he was.
“He was never hard on anybody,” Nelson said. “He was a softy. We all had so much respect for the guy and we did whatever he wanted us to do, and do it best you could. So there was no reason for him to yell at anybody.”
Nelson said Russell remained even keel through the best and worst of times during each season, and likes to tell how Russell reacted after a particularly (and rare) Celtics collapse.
“We were down like 40 points at halftime in Baltimore. It didn’t get any worse than that. What are you going to say to your team when you’re down 40? He got up and just broke into laughter. He said, ‘Sometimes things aren’t going to go your way.’ He was very realistic about certain situations, but when it came to a championship, all that went away and he expected to win those.”
Russell wrote often about his coaching philosophy and experiences in the Boston Globe and here’s one passage:
“I tell all the guys shooting is only one part of the game. There are other parts of the game which are just as important. Playing defense, keeping your man off the boards, setting picks, giving a guy the ball when he’s free and you’re not, all those things.
“At halftime (of Game 7 in 1969) I told them, ‘You’ve got another 24 minutes out there. Whatever we’re going to do, win or lose, let’s do it together.’ We play together, live together, take care of each other, and I would feel the same way about these guys if we lost. We really identify with each other because we know each other.”
After the second title, Russell was finished. His departure from the game was uncommonly quiet by today’s standards. There was no tearful good-bye, no press conference, nothing like that. Russell told the world in a first-person story for Sports Illustrated, then drove his Lamborghini to Los Angeles and never lived in Boston again.
Like most players, he struggled to find his retirement footing. He tried broadcasting but that didn’t last. He did speeches. He got divorced, then remarried. He needed work — the most money he made with the Celtics in a season was $100,001, the extra dollar because he wanted that much more than Wilt, the highest paid player at the time.
Therefore, out of necessity and also by request, coaching came calling again.
Sam Schulman, who owned the fledgling Seattle SuperSonics, wanted to energize the franchise and turned to Russell for the 1973-74 season. According to Russell’s book “Second Wind,” Russell asked for terms considered outrageous then. To his surprise, Schulman agreed to all of them.
Russell took a liking to the young team and was hooked on the city of Seattle, which he found more welcoming to Black athletes than Boston. Russell bought a home on Mercer Island where he lives to this day.
The Sonics had only one winning season before Russell arrived and after a 36-win first season, Russell took them to the playoffs the next two seasons. Russell stressed the tactics that made his Boston teams successful: defense, sacrifice, finding the open man. But the Sonics failed to improve on that despite the presence of Spencer Haywood, Slick Watts and Fred Brown, and Russell was fired in 1977 after a 40-42 season.
His next and final coaching stop wasn’t successful at all, and rather short: Russell signed a seven-year contract to coach the Sacramento Kings in 1987 and was fired after a 17-41 start. Russell was a bit eccentric; he rarely spoke to the local media and was viewed by players — none of whom saw him play — as a grandfatherly type who was fond of telling Celtics tales in team meetings.
Jerry Reynolds, who served a variety of roles with the franchise for nearly three decades, was one of Russell’s assistants then. He recently said Russell really didn’t have a chance and also dealt with unfair perceptions.
“The biggest problem Bill had was the team wasn’t any good,” Reynolds said. “Red Auerbach and Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich wouldn’t win with that team, either. Also, his name was Bill Russell. There are expectations because of that. If his name was Elmer Fudd, it would’ve went a lot easier for him.”
Reynolds noted that Russell was a victim of bad timing as well.
“Bill was also the general manager, he had the No. 1 pick and took Pervis Ellison in a draft that didn’t have a top guy. The best player in the draft was Tim Hardaway, who went 14th. It just didn’t go well. Bill came into a situation that wasn’t a very good one. He was hoping to make it better and it never got better. Fast-forward to today, we haven’t been to the playoffs for the last 15 years around here so maybe people understand that a bit better now.”
Reynolds added the Sacramento experience shouldn’t reflect on Russell’s body of work. Reynolds summed up the Bill Russell coaching experience in Boston, Seattle and Sacramento with this:
“We’re all flawed and he had his flaws, but I have nothing but respect for Bill Russell. He’s a unique man. He’s Bill Russell. I grew up idolizing him. I thought the world of him. And all the players respected him.”
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.