This week Bill Russell was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the NBA Awards Show, so it is as good a week as any to share my all-time favorite coach-player story. In “Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend,” Russell writes about a priceless moment involving his coach Red Auerbach. It’s a lesson that could have benefited Knicks ex-president Phil Jackson in responding to current and future stars Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis.
The final nail in the coffin of The Zen Disaster’s reign as Knicks prez was spurred by Phil putting Porzingis on the trade market as a petty response to his skipping his exit interview. As a basic rule, if the most mobile 7-3 player in NBA history is on your team (only contest is a young Ralph Sampson), you don’t alienate that player over a missed meeting.
The whole affair contrasts with what Russell called “one of the pivotal moments in my career” which came in the Hall of Famer’s very first start in the 12th game of his rookie year. In “Red and Me,” Russell sets the stage:
“Before the game, Red asked (Bob) Cousy, our captain then, ‘What do you think, Cooz?’ Cousy said, ‘I got Slater Martin guarding me. I can take him down in the blocks and I’ll either get him in foul trouble or get a lot of easy shots.’ I was just a rookie, but I didn’t think much of this idea. If you put your point guard down in the blocks where the center normally plays, everybody else is standing around out of position — that’s really bad basketball. But Cousy went down in the blocks, and then I was out of position standing around while Slater Martin beat him up. We were getting the crap kicked out of us. Next huddle, Bill Sharman wanted to go down in the blocks with his man. I was out of position again, standing around, really getting pissed because Sharman got the same results.”
Russell the rookie wasn’t just getting pissed with anybody. Cousy and Sharman were perennial All-Stars who were first-team All-NBA and top-5 MVP candidates the previous year. Russell continues his story:
“By the second quarter, the Celtics were about 18 points down, so Red called another time-out … We always stood together in our huddle. But I walked over to the bench and sat down. Everybody looked over at me until Red said, ‘Russell! Why aren’t you in the huddle?’”
Then the rookie shot back at his coach:
“I play center” said Russell. “Everybody else is playing center tonight. I don’t need to be in the huddle to know how to get out of their way.”
Pause. Imagine you are Auerbach. How do you react?
It’s almost impossible to put Russell’s “offense” into 2017 perspective. As Russell notes: “in those days, rookies didn’t talk to the referees, and they didn’t talk back to coaches. Rookies weren’t considered people yet.” And that even included white rookies.
Russell, of course is black, the only African-American player on the Celtics at that time.
And did I mention that the year was 1956, a time amidst lynchings and bus boycotts?
Or that it was Russell’s very first start of his career?
Reds’s very next move, with Captain Cousy, Sharman and the rest of the team watching, may have changed the course of NBA history. Russell states:
“Red thought about it a few seconds and said, ‘Okay, nobody plays center but Russell.’ Just like that.”
Just like that.
That’s right, Phil. Auerbach publicly deferred to his prized rookie after being publicly challenged – in 1956.
What about that exit interview again?
“It caught me completely by surprise” writes Russell, “There wasn’t another coach in the league who would have taken that tack. Any other coach would have said, ‘Get your ass off the bench and get back to the locker room and get dressed! I’m the coach of this team!’”
The “very tough position” Russell put Red in, was not lost on Bill.
“He had nine other players standing there, listening to this exchange,” writes Russell. “How would they respond to his acquiescing like that? Would it undermine his authority with the team? He had to take all that into consideration, right on the spot. His response told me that Red had decided, ‘Russell is the horse I’m riding. It was a critical moment for me — it started building our relationship.’”
“Building our relationship.” Catch that Phil?
That mutual relationship was the foundation for the Celtics dynasty.
Phil Jackson has spent his entire Knicks tenure destroying relationships, and his souring one with Porzingis was the last straw. Russell reflected further:
“What if Red had considered me insolent, or confrontational, or disruptive to his authority? It very easily could have finished my Celtics career before it started. I could have picked up the reputation of a troublemaker and been moved around from team to team.”
In the very long history of sports feuds between white authority and perceived black misbehavior, the white public almost always sides with white authority – even if it means losing more games. This concept is still true in 2017 (see NFL and Colin Kaepernick). Had Russell been thrown to the waste-bin like other unknown would-be black Hall of Famers of his day, his shortened career would have been justified by many fans.
Just this week, NFL quarterback Vince Young (31-19 as starter) spoke out about his own prematurely-ended career. More than most, Young really needed an Auerbach, but instead got the egomaniacal mediocrity of Jeff Fisher. Had Fisher been Celtics coach in 1956, we may not even know Bill Russell’s name.
Nearly all coaches and players at the highest level have egos – often a prerequisite for greatness. But not all ego types are created equal.
“Both of us had the same kind of ego,” writes Russell. “If his team wins a championship, he’s a great coach, and if my team wins a championship, I’m a great player.”
Russell’s challenge to Auerbach and Red’s response were driven by the same thing: desire to win.
The “winning over everything” type of ego is precisely what Phil Jackson lacked as Knicks president. Sports Executive 101 Course is you never decrease the trade value of your own players by publicly disparaging them. Executive 201 is you don’t devalue them by force-fitting them into your pet offense. His public jabs and insistence on his triangle offense were both related to his own ego.
Phil’s ego that came for Porzingis was nothing new. Years earlier, Phil’s ego disparaged, devalued and discarded J.R. Smith, but few noticed – because it was “The Zen Master” vs. J.R. Smith. While Phil’s trash became LeBron’s treasure, his ego kept growing.
More, but still not nearly enough, noticed when Phil’s ego inexplicably threw jabs at Carmelo. Why devalue your best player instead of highlighting how god-awful the Knicks were without Melo? While touting the Knicks putrid 9-51 record without Melo in the lineup would increase Melo’s trade value, it might also highlight Phil’s inability to surround Melo with talent. Elevating Knicks’ trade assets also required decreasing his ego – and that is the one Knicks trade Phil was never willing to make.
In contrast, Red’s swallowing of superficial pride to gain Russell’s trust was the best trade of his illustrious career.
“He didn’t need to prove he was the coach,” wrote Russell about Red. “He didn’t need to change me to get my best. His only thought was, ‘How can I help this team to win?’ That never changed. For the rest of that road trip, I played center all the time.”
The fact is, the rookie was right. Posting up the 6-1 Cousy and Sharman was a bad idea. Russell said of Red: “He was the best listener I have ever encountered. It was the secret of his success.”
“Red and Me” is really a must-read for today’s coaches as Russell explains the various ways Red respected his intelligence without being condescending or paternalistic. Bill respected Red as “a co-worker.” About that pivotal moment Russell says:
“That sent me another message about Red: he appreciated my perspective and my value to the team. It stimulated me to reciprocate.”
With 11 NBA titles in 13 years, “reciprocate” might be the NBA understatement of all time.
Prior to Russell’s arrival, Auerbach, Cousy and Sharman never won more than one playoff series with the Celtics. Auerbach would later select Russell as the NBA’s first African-American coach. Phil Jackson would win one more title as coach than Red, but unlike Jackson, Red would go on to have a stellar career as an NBA Executive. Red had a different type of ego than Phil.
In a day where “today’s players” are often portrayed as selfish, spoiled, or “divas,” it is important that we correct the mythology surrounding Bill Russell and The Celtic Dynasty.
It did not start with Russell “The Winner,” it began with Russell the Rebel, and Red the Listener.
Then came the winning.
As Knicks president, that’s a lesson Phil Jackson either forgot, or never bothered to learn.