June 8th, 1970
六月 08, 1970
Bill Russell: Success Is A Journey
Since his retirement from basketball last summer, Bill Russell has lectured at more than 60 colleges and universities around the country, considered and turned down a number of offers to return to basketball as coach and executive and reflected on the values of sport generally and his own career specifically. Here are the fruits of that reflection
William F. Russell
I should epitomize the American Dream, for I came, against long odds, from the farthest back to the very top of my profession. I came from the Depression, from an oppressed minority—first in rural poverty and then from a city's ghetto. I had to persevere to succeed, to climb out of the life that society had programmed for me. I was not immediately good at basketball. It did not come easy.
In the end, though, I attained not only great Success and recognition for the highest achievement, but acclaim for being an innovator, a creator, as well. It is hard to believe now, but before I came along there were virtually no blocked shots in the game of basketball. In that primeval world, as late as my sophomore year in college, my coach was telling me that my defensive style was "fundamentally unsound." So, in effect, not only did I dominate my game in the years that I was playing it, but I changed it altogether for all time as well.
I can be objective, and, so far as I can tell, I have lived up to all that society demands. I have achieved the absolute in my field. I have been a good winner. I am affluent. I am concerned for my fellow man and have spoken out. I am articulate, make a good appearance and am relatively honest. So, one time not long ago, I was informed that a large, prestigious company had considered me for a commercial in which I would endorse their product. But I was turned down because I did not fit their "image of what an athlete should be."
So much for the American Dream. It is, in fact, no more than a sugarcoated fantasy that sport has fundamentally improved or advanced any faster than the other components of society in the last two decades. I suspect because we elevate sport to a position of sanctity (witness the hysterical reaction to Curt Flood's suit against the reserve clause) that the falsehood is piously maintained that sport is out there in the forefront in the march of human rights. Sport brings a city together. You know that; you hear it all the time. A public hanging would achieve the same end. Sport reflects American life. Yes, it does. The fans bring their prejudices right along with them.
Indeed, the belief that sport is so progressive probably manages to cause a great deal of harm by perpetuating corollary myths. How harsh it must be for some young athlete to trust that he will be judged only on his abilities and then find out that that ideal is administered by a coach who will bench a boy because his hair is too long or because his politics are too dovish or because it is long-standing policy to start two at home, three on the road and five when you get behind. Progress should be viewed from two standards—not just how far we have gone, but how far we still must go.
How much has it all changed? Well, when I first got involved in the big-time sports world 20 years ago, most energy was being expended in finding good polite colored boys who would play the game, take abuse with a smile and a shuffle and thus be...a credit to their race. Now all the energy is spent in searching for white hopes (of any character) who can play, and thus be...a credit to their race.
The progress, or the lack of it, seems to be about the same in college and the pros. This is not especially surprising since there is a misplaced emphasis on money at every level. In this regard, the colleges have a much better gimmick than the pros, because none of the hired hands stay around long enough to cost big salaries. Why, I guess even the best kids don't make much more than $20,000 a year even in the top-paying institutions of higher learning these days.
Since profit is clearly the primary function of college athletics, I am always befuddled as to why anyone bothers to make such a big thing out of eligibility anymore. In the same way we make such an issue out of school busing when we ought to concern ourselves with the quality of education. Is there any value, really, in forcing a young man like Spencer Haywood to go through the motions of four years of college—when he seems to have neither the need nor interest in it—just so he can donate his college eligibility to some lucky athletic department?
It is a clich�, but it is still the truth, that too many coaches view their prospective athletes as performers and not as people. No coach should ask a boy to join his team unless he also would ask him to come into his house. No college should grant an athletic scholarship unless it can also offer the guarantee that that young man will graduate. Yes, guarantee. If it takes 10 years and 10 tutors, that kid will graduate. If this assurance cannot be made, then the college obviously is insincere in asking the boy to represent it on the athletic field.
Unfortunately, too many coaches cannot be reached through their shell of smugness. They feel that the colleges are surely bulwarks of salvation and that they themselves are great benefactors, simply because they invite some kid to come and play ball for a while. Especially where the coaches still deal in black stereotypes, they remain convinced that they are saving young men from a life of sweeping floors or jail.
Unfortunately, too, this mentality appears to extend far beyond the athletic department nowadays, to the classrooms and the dean's office. Education seems to be incidental to the main purpose of college—building students into spare parts for industry. The difference is slight between the halfback who gets drafted by the NFL and the engineer who advances to some conglomerate where he can develop new polluting devices. You graduate (or anyway, you use up your eligibility) and you are asked: O.K., what can you do? Never: What kind of person are you?
I worry about these young people in college now. Anyway, I wonder about them. I have never enjoyed anything quite so much as the opportunity I have had this past year to visit college campuses and talk with the students. They're obviously interested, more concerned and alert than my generation. Only sometimes I feel that it is just another game they're playing. Instead of sitting around and drinking, like my contemporaries, they're sitting around and taking drugs. Either way, it's a cop-out.
Whatever my doubts about some collegians, however, it is certainly apparent that what advances have come about in sport are on account of pressures by college athletes. Usually, too, the agitation has been led by the black kids. In a real sense, the black athlete is helping to emancipate his white teammate, and I don't believe the whites have appreciated this.
As for the pros, it is a general rule that as we get older and richer we also get more conservative. Professional athletes fit this mold. They are not only conservative, they are usually insecure as well. I think that most of them play in the first place because they need the attention. They are not given to taking risks, and I found out in coaching that you get the best results by threatening pros. Find out what a man is afraid of, and you can make him act. I often wonder how men like Bernie Casey, the artist, and Tom Meschery, the poet (and also probably the most progressive thinker among white athletes), ever manage to survive a whole season with such an insensitive group as a team of pros. They must love their sport very much.
There are, of course, a tremendous amount of misconceptions about athletes and athletics. The fans are so devoted to clich�s that it is easy for them to be misled, particularly by a sporting press that has a genius for distortion. Writers are always concentrating on abstract concepts, like emotion or momentum or tradition, which are hard enough to comprehend even when you are intimately involved. The matter of courage, for instance, is always being discussed in romantic detail, when 99% of the time it is not the moral quality of courage which is at issue. Instead, it is only the physical fact of tolerance to pain. There is no player or man that I can speak higher of than Elgin Baylor, but it is absolutely wrong to suggest that Elgin exhibited any special courage when he came back to play after his knee operation. Elgin is a ballplayer. When he could take it again, he came back to play ball. It is like a businessman going back to work after he recovers from a nervous breakdown. He goes back because that is his job. Courage has nothing to do with it.
There is a similar confusion with the subject of character as it relates to the outcome of a game. It is so simplistic to be assured that those who play the best are the best—the guys in white hats and all that—but the truth of the matter is that there is no equation between character and victory. I never felt that the Lakers or any other team we beat tried any less hard than we did. Don't let anyone tell you that the Dallas Cowboys choke. The Cowboys don't lose the big ones; the Cowboys just lose to teams that are better than they are. Listen, the best team always wins. Always, every time. It seems to me that is why they keep score.
Unfortunately, society says that winning is everything; but I would be foolish to believe that. After all, while we put such emphasis on winning, there are far more losers than there are winners. When we lost to the 76ers in 1967, my only emotional response was disappointment. What else could there be? We had played as well as we could and had lost through no fault of our own, only because the 76ers could—and did—exceed our abilities.
It was the only time in the '60s that the Celtics did lose, but I still do not believe that I was the most dominant athlete of the decade. That honor can only belong to Muhammad Ali. In fact, of all the athletes I have known, he is the one I would most prefer to have my sons look up to. So many people claim belief in something, but Ali has supported his faith at great financial loss to himself. We foolishly lionize athletes and make them heroes because they can hit a ball or catch one. It is a sad comment of the times. The only athletes we should bother with attaching any particular importance to are those like Ali, whom we can admire for themselves and not for their incidental athletic abilities.
There is a certain irony in that the most influential sports figure active today is Joe Namath, because he is no more than the end product of Muhammad Ali from 10 years ago. The situation is analogous to music, where the white musicians borrowed the black style and went on to make all the money. Unfortunately, the one thing Namath did not take from Ali is the most important facet of the man—conviction.
So far as I can see, while Namath is celebrated for being outspoken by an adoring press, he stands for nothing except having a good time. On the only occasion when Namath was forced to stand on his beliefs, he left them for the easy way out. Despite crying principle, after he was confronted by the commissioner he dropped the principle when it became expedient to do so. Then he was like a little boy taking a spanking he knew he deserved. Of course, fans like that. The Greeks made many of their gods vulnerable so they could be destroyed, and I believe, in the same way, that sports fans like their heroes best when they have feet of clay. (On a personal level, incidentally, I like Namath.)
Are sports any different from the rest of our world? This is a society that can destroy Muhammad Ali for his convictions but that praises Joe Namath for possessing none. This is a society whose laws protect property more than they do people, whose police—corrupt and on the take—preach law and order and seldom speak of justice. No, it is no surprise that Namath rather than Ali is the idol of our time.
Of course, most athletes are convinced that it is always best to follow the policy of being seen and not heard. I can remember a few years ago when I had some controversial things to say in a Saturday Evening Post article. I spent that whole season—till the heat went off me—with very few friends in the league, including the Celtics. The players felt that it was risky to associate with me, at least until next season's contracts were signed.
In that same year, 1964, a few of us did almost obtain enough support to pull off what would have been an unprecedented strike of All-Stars. Bob Cousy had gone to his retirement the season before after more than a decade of trying to get the owners merely to let him in the room with them to discuss a player's association. Now Tommy Heinsohn had assumed Cousy's role, and since he was finding no more success, we decided to strike before the All-Star game in Boston.
Remember now, we were the All-Stars, the best in the world. We had nothing to be afraid of. Nobody was going to ban us or run us out of basketball. If you wanted to see character and courage, you could see it here. I remember Elgin and Jerry West particularly, because their owner was the only one who actually came to the door and started knocking on it and yelling inside at his players. Elgin and Jerry held firm and joined with seven others of us to call off the game, but the vote went 11-9 to play. You should have seen the fear on many of the faces in that room. One guy, who is still in the league, was shaking so when it came his turn to vote that he had to take his hands and sit on them. He voted to play.
The prime argument used to persuade us to play that game was that of loyalty. It is a familiar entreaty, and is regularly taken out and waved like the flag in both college and professional sports. Be loyal to your alma mater or to the organization. Unfortunately, loyalty in sports remains a one way street. Athletes are asked, as pros, to be loyal to a team whose owner has joined with others in a pell-mell expansion scheme that has no purpose but to make the owners money, and is so utterly lacking in foresight that no one has yet created a program to supply good referees for eight teams, much less 18. Athletes are asked to be loyal to owners who look upon players as no more than a tax dodge, to be loyal to a team that will trade us tomorrow if it suits it, to be loyal to a team that took us by forced draft, to be loyal to fans who will withdraw their support the instant things go wrong. These truths do not change in sports.
On top of all that, loyalty is further complicated by the crosscurrents of race. A perfect example: several years ago, in Lexington, Ky., we were going to play an exhibition game against the St. Louis Hawks that would honor former Kentuckians Frank Ramsey—the best forward I ever played with, by the way—and Cliff Hagan. That afternoon before the game, a few of the black Celtics were denied service in the motel coffee shop. Naturally, we were on the next plane out of the friendly Bluegrass Country. The point of the story is not a revelation of discrimination in Kentucky. The point is in the reaction, the majority opinion of which was summed up by Bob Burnes, the St. Louis sports editor, who wrote an article castigating the black players for leaving. He said we owed it to Ramsey and Hagan to remain. Nowhere did I read or did I hear that perhaps the Celtics and Hawks owed us something; that perhaps even our white teammates did.
Instead of preaching loyalty, I think it surely must be time for clubs to make moves that will genuinely foster player loyalty. Certainly, the reserve clause must go—or at least serious accommodations must be made. The right to draft or trade a player without his approval is another outdated concept. But beyond these rather major modifications of the structure, there are many simple things that clubs could do to improve the whole atmosphere. Profit sharing, stock options and the other benefits of ordinary business—which is all pro sport is—could be an easy start. Every player should be provided with legal counsel and an accountant. Every player should be helped in finding an off-season job in the team's city, even if it means—especially if it means—that the team would have to subsidize part of the player's off-season salary. In the long run, the team would make it back. The best PR men and ticket sellers a team has are its players, and keeping them around, in touch with you, while they learn a career is hardly a waste of money.
In a somewhat similar vein, incidentally, I think that NBA teams should award college scholarships to high school basketball players who like the game but who are not proficient enough to compete on a college level. To earn the scholarship the boy would agree to devote a certain amount of his time to studying and practicing refereeing. By the time he graduated, he would be a well-trained referee, properly indebted to the NBA. There would be plenty of good officials competing for jobs every season.
What is so upsetting about the sports Establishment is that it so seldom initiates any action. Everything is done only as a last resort, a response. I suppose it is only a matter of time before players are unionized. I happen to be all for that development, but it really is unnecessary, if owners could ever bring themselves to help their players. The funny thing is that, really, the only assets there are in basketball are players. You would think that the owners, allegedly all smart businessmen, would assess that situation very quickly and realize how sensible—never mind moral—it would be to protect and make friends with the only assets they have.
Of course, while I say all these things about sports, and much of what I say is critical, it is important to understand that I love games. I was one professional athlete who even enjoyed watching baseball. We must all strive to keep sports in perspective, though. I will not introduce the subject around my children. If they bring it up, fine, or if they want to play catch or shoot baskets, I am delighted. Nothing, however, is more sickening to me than those fathers who force their kids to play a sport.
It is the same sort of people who are incapable of seeing what is really important about sports. They can only turn games into little holy wars and enjoy them as emotional therapy—which is, anyway, better than having them on the streets. My own view is that athletics is an art form. As a fan, I watch in the same way that I imagine an art connoisseur studies a painting. The beauty of the sport is in the high caliber of achievement; the personalities of the players mean nothing to me. On the court, on the field, every player's personality should be subjugated and serve only to make the team distinctive.
What I enjoy most of all is, simply, seeing a man who is proficient perform. Athlete, actor, musician, painter. I would really enjoy the opportunity of observing the president of a large company in action for a day or two. I know that would fascinate me, because the same principle is involved—studying a man with great fundamental skills and knowledge while he performs his specialty.
I am sure that in any pursuit, especially athletics, confidence and satisfaction must come from within. If it does not, if you must find your satisfaction from without, usually from publicity and acclaim, then you can be hurt badly by losing—even if you did your best. Losing, you know, has no more to do with measuring character than does winning.
One reason that I was able to be a great player was that nobody knew how important that fact was to me. No one has ever been sure what I valued, and where I was really vulnerable. This made me especially effective against Wilt Chamberlain. I confused him. On the other hand, Wilt has really been the victim of an informal conspiracy. It is unfortunate, because he turned out to be better than even he thought; he could do pretty much what he wanted. But Wilt got tricked; he fell for the statistics game the way most fans and writers do. They emphasized points, so Wilt went out and got points. More than anyone. Then they said rebounds, so he went out and got the most rebounds. He was doing everything the statistics conspiracy told him to do, but he was still an also-ran. So, wait a minute, it must be assists. Wilt went right out and got the most assists for a center.
Now, in his mind, he had done everything required of a player, because he had led in all the categories that they had told him about. And he still could not win. It's sad, because it's too late now, because I'm gone, but perhaps at last Wilt is catching on about what the game is really all about. I heard him after his first meeting with Alcindor this year, and he kept emphasizing to the interviewer that it wasn't important how they fared man-to-man. The score was kept team vs. team. Well, that sounded familiar. Suddenly I knew how George Wallace must have felt when Spiro Agnew began stealing all his good stuff.
I could never let myself be influenced by the press, for I concluded early that most reporters do not do their homework and are blinded by meaningless statistics. I don't think you can be a good sportswriter if you take the subject matter too seriously.
There is still a communications gap between the writers and the athletes—especially the black athletes—and the press can be terribly insensitive. I can remember one particularly painful episode as far back as 1958, when Red Auerbach made Bennie Swain his first draft choice. A Boston paper then wrote, matter-of-factly, that since this made four Celtic Negroes, one of us already on the team—K.C., Sam Jones or myself—would obviously have to go. Apparently, I was not supposed to have any reaction to this report.
The newspapers always assumed—and after they assumed it long enough, began to believe it—that I did not like Cousy. I suspect this was because the writers figured that since they stumbled all over me on the way past my locker to interview Cousy, I must be jealous of him. The truth of the matter is that I always admired Cousy, and of all the men I played with, I respected him the most.
Misconceptions of this sort are liable to occur so long as there are only token blacks in the communications industry, so long as the black athlete is denied having one of his own as a friend at court. It is important, you know. Sports is all one business now, and the game can no longer be isolated from what surrounds it. The press, TV, companies that use athletes for endorsements—they are all as much a part of modern big-time sports as the league office itself.
I am sure that I received different treatment because there are no blacks in the decision-making processes of the sports apparatus. What few endorsement offers I received were all cheap. One time a large ad agency from New York called and suggested I do an ad "for prestige." I replied: "If I needed prestige, you wouldn't have called me in the first place." I can't think of all the times I was asked to appear on a radio or TV show. No pay, of course. I was there to help jack up the ratings, attract new sponsors and help everybody else get more money. Of course, neither I nor any other black athlete was eligible to have such a show.
The press itself probably plays the largest role in creating white hopes, a practice which seems to be growing rather than diminishing. It appears that the point has been reached now where white hopes are even created after the fact. Arnold Palmer, for instance, was voted Athlete of the Decade by the Associated Press, and there seems to be absolutely no justification for that choice except along racial lines. (Of course, I did feel better after the Mets were voted the Team of the Decade by ABC-TV viewers over the Celtics—and the Packers—for that choice is so absolutely ludicrous that it makes all the others invalid, too.)
White hope springs eternal, though. Pete Maravich is, of course, the latest paper star. They are determined to force him down our throats as they have so many white players before him. One of the reasons that Jerry West has the respect of every player in the NBA is that he had to earn his stripes. He came up, relatively unheralded, like the rest of us. Billy Cunningham is another one that way. He made his reputation. But, good God, remember Bill Bradley? He was ordained as the greatest player in history even before he ever played in the pros. Of course, it's true that he never asked for any of that adulation.
The NBA has apparently purged itself of the quota system. The day in 1965 that Red started five blacks—and we went on to win the title—that was the end of the quota system. As despicable as it was, however, I must say that the quota system won a title for the Celtics. In the 1963-64 season Cincinnati had a better team than we did. The Royals could have beaten us, but in my opinion they virtually gave Bob Boozer away to get down to their black quota, and that gave us a championship in the bargain.
Basketball is clearly the most progressive sport now. Blacks have even reached a point in basketball where we have achieved the right to failure. That's very important, you know. It is just as important as the right to succeed. When John McLendon was fired as the coach of the Denver Rockets this winter, there was no fuss made about anybody picking on a black man, or anybody saying a black man couldn't coach. He got the ax, just like any coach, because the team was going bad. Now that is progress.
It is also isolated. Baseball front offices are whiter than anything but press boxes, and football has really looked out for itself. It has never needed a quota system. Football has a much better gimmick. It is called a quarterback. As long as quarterback can be a segregated position, football is protected. It can be assured of having one white star every game, who can get all the endorsements and win all the sports cars. At the same time, the all-white quarterbacks perpetuate the racist theme that no black man is smart enough to call signals.
I can remember watching a game on TV a couple years ago, and I was moved to say something like: "Man, that Unitas is great." One of the black guys I was watching the game with, said: "Who knows?" A little bit stunned by that, I asked him what he meant, and he replied that he really could not evaluate Unitas or any other quarterback fairly since they had never faced a full range of competition. A Paul Hornung, Mickey Mantle, Jerry West—you cannot deny their greatness, because they have stood the test of time in a free market, so to speak. But no one can pretend to know how good our best white quarterbacks would be if the NFL permitted the development of black quarterbacks to compete with them.
What makes a quarterback so very important is that he is consistently visible. Everyone else only comes and goes in the crunch. I don't think, for example, that the appeal of its violence has helped make football so popular. I think where it has the edge on basketball and where it has captured more public imagination is in the dead period between plays. At this point, the plays can be run over again and everybody can point out how smart the football players are. In basketball, you don't have time to talk about how smart the players are.
I do think that basketball is the most graceful of all our major sports. It is not nearly so rough as it was when I came into the pros. The jump shot opened it up, made it more fluid. Today, I think it is close to an art form, with greater potential for growth than any other of the more popular games, because it is more appealing to women.
Actually, in any sport, I've never met a great athlete who was dumb. It is no coincidence that the two greatest guards in the game, Oscar Robertson and West, are also the two smartest. But I'll tell you—and this will surprise you—neither of them had more physical ability than Sam Jones did. Sam was a better shooter than anyone, and he didn't need the ball to work. He shook me up the first time that I saw him, in one motion, take a pass and go up—and while he was shooting he was also rotating the ball to find the seams. That shook me. I couldn't believe a man could do that.
Sam never had a bad clutch game. I wish they kept records on that. And he always had a surprise. Of course, he is not alone in that, for all of the truly great players are like icebergs.
The only trouble was that Sam never wanted the responsibility that would have gone with being as good as he was. It was almost as if Sam programmed his career so that he would improve (perceptibly) only gradually, season by season, and never get to a point where people might demand too much of him. Look at his career statistics. It is as if someone drew a perfect bell curve based on his season averages. John Havlicek would be an example of the opposite. If he ever stopped to think what he was doing, he would realize that no one could do what he did without getting tired.
Of course, part of the beauty of the Celtics was that we were all so different. The only way all our peculiar, strong personalities could be coordinated into one great team was to constantly work toward the one single goal. There was no magic to it, although in any sport, you must have some one or some thing to pull it all together. It can be a coach, owner, an athletic director, a school spirit. But you need a special energy if you are to win. As far as the so-called Celtic tradition was concerned, however, what I saw and experienced and what outsiders perceived were two entirely different concepts. I viewed it strictly in the technical sense. It was the other people who made up all the hocus pocus. Of course, if anyone could be convinced that he would be a winner just because he put on a Celtic uniform, I was certainly never going to contradict him. I didn't believe it for a minute, but it was wonderful propaganda.
We were also good propaganda for the game of basketball—although our effect on the city of Boston was negligible. As a team, we proved that you did not have to be close-knit to find success on the court. Several players I really never knew. Bailey Howell, for instance. I played alongside him for my last three years, and about all I can say of Bailey personally is that he certainly seemed to be a very nice man. Other men I played with, I really did not like at all. As a coach, I always believed that you should never say anything bad about your players in public, but one drove me to the very limits of that resolve. Some players I could not comprehend. Still others, like Cousy, I admired. If I had to select one Celtic from all those I played with who was the epitome of being a Celtic, it would be Don Nelson. He is a man's man who made the most of his ability with his tenacity and his mind, and that is what the game is all about. The point is that winning has nothing to do with liking your teammates. You only have to respect each other as players.
As a matter of fact, I truly believe that teammates cannot be friends. It would be too much of a strain. The most that teammates can be is what I call "strong acquaintances." I don't think that a man should try to take on the obligation of having five friends at any one time in his life. It is too much of a responsibility if you wish to really fulfill the role of being a true friend. It is so complex to be a friend, because you must be yourself, and yet you must consider your friend and act not to offend him either.
Our whole lives, it seems, we are only deciding how often and to whom we should expose ourselves. We learn to make a shell for ourselves when we are young and then spend the rest of our lives hoping for someone to reach inside that shell and touch us. Just touch us—anything more than that would be too much for us to bear. No, you can not make a friend of a teammate. That is too complicated a trick to try and pull off.
Naturally, the fact that I became a coach served as another filter to relationships with the other players. Basketball is a very touchy team game to coach, because it is devilishly structured now in such a way that while it is still played with five men at a time, there are only enough shots available to keep four men happy. Just not quite enough to go around. The Knicks worked well this year because the fifth man—the guy who didn't get his—usually turned out to be a different fellow every game. That is one way of getting around what is, really, a very fundamental problem of the modern game. With the Celtics, over the years, usually there was one unofficially designated man who did not get the shots—Loscutoff first, then K.C. or Sanders. For my last few seasons—especially after I took over the coaching—I didn't get that many, either. In fact, the way we beat the Knicks in the playoffs last year was for me to turn the tables on them and start shooting—as much as three or four more times than I had in the regular season. Then Willis Reed had to concentrate more on me for a change, and this upset their defensive scheme.
I did my best coaching in that series, although I think overall I was a pretty good coach. I take no pride, however, in the historical happenstance that I was the first major league black coach. That may sound surprising, and I do hope that someday I will be able to be proud of that distinction. It can only mean something to me, however, if many black men follow behind me and become managers and coaches, in football and baseball, as well as in basketball, in college as well as in the pros. Just as Ali is the athlete of the '60s, Jackie Robinson is clearly the most significant sporting figure of our whole generation—or of anybody's generation since the war. But Jackie (and I'm sure he would agree) is not distinguished by the fact that he was the first black major-leaguer. He is distinguished by the fact that he was the first of many, that he made it possible for all who followed. When that happens in the coaching ranks, then I will be proud of having been the first.
With regard to being first, incidentally, I have learned to be suspicious of blacks who make such a point about having succeeded as the first or only black in some endeavor. Usually, sadly, this means that they have traded their blackness for the opportunity. The ultimate of this sort I encountered once on a plane. He was a major in the U.S. Marine Corps, and he boasted of being the only black in his college, in his OCS class, the only black in his area killing Commies, the only black in some new assignment he was heading for and so on, until he had become the first and only black white racist that I have ever met.
I have always felt safe in my blackness. I wore a beard for years, long before it was stylish or before it signified anything special. I am black, but I do not feel it incumbent on me to prove it by subscribing to any philosophy which requires that I cut myself off from all but my own race. I find that trend regrettable. People who restrict themselves to one race—who say they won't associate with blacks or whites, whatever the case—are only limiting themselves as humans. When you arbitrarily refuse to associate with another race, you are the loser, for you are going to miss out on a lot of beautiful, interesting people. But the shame is that that is happening now, and efforts must be made to reverse the situation. Whites must understand—if things don't begin to move, if nothing is done—that there is a kid growing up right now in Watts or in Chicago or somewhere, and he is going to make Eldridge Cleaver look like something out of a nursery rhyme.
It seems to me that the immediate and easiest thing that we can do is to provide a genuine equal enforcement of the law. Everything begins to break down from that point. I see the inequality every day in the sudden concern with the harshness of the drug laws. Nobody was worried about how strict they were when it was just a bunch of black ghetto kids, like some of the guys I grew up with in Oakland, who were getting sent to jail. The only difference is that we called it weed. Now, in keeping with its suburban image, I see that it has become grass. When it really hits the upper classes, it will have to become flower.
I go visit black neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, and I see the kids there, and I suddenly feel very powerless, because I don't know what to tell them. I would like to say, hey, you can make it, just like I did. Just follow my example. But of course, I can't say that, because very few of us grow up to be 6'9?" athletes. Given the best of conditions, how many of these kids could go to the top of their field? So, all I do say is: "Do the best you can."
I gave a speech up in San Luis Obispo recently, and afterwards a woman came up to me and asked me to talk with some boys she had brought over from a nearby reformatory. This was a tough situation. I know boys like this. I grew up with them. I know the kind of speeches they hear all the time. The lady said: "Encourage them. Say something nice to them about being good citizens." But I told those kids I wasn't going to stand up before them and give them the same crap that they heard every other time. Finally I said: "Just do your best. And good luck." And then I shook hands with all of them because I did want them to know that I cared enough about them to touch them.
I don't know yet what lies ahead for me, immediately or in the more distant future. I'm pretty sure I won't be back in basketball in any capacity. Movies and television are more real possibilities. I'm not a spokesman. I'm not running for any political office. I am happy. I've never been so relaxed in my life. I have the time to read more and think more and enjoy the world more.
I am reminded of an acquaintance of mine who quit recently as the president of a large company. All sorts of new offers were made to help him change his mind, but he turned them all down. "Success is a journey with me," he said, "not a destination."
I like that sentiment. I have borrowed it for myself, because I think it is so apt for me. I am not chasing stars ahead of me, and I am not looking back on the Bill Russell that played basketball, either. I value that time, and I traveled on it to here, but this is as far as I want it to carry me.