Wednesday, January 16, 2008

An Opinionated Man

A couple weeks ago, Henry Abbott at TrueHoop offered a post entitled "Black Athletes Have Long Seen Boston As Racist" which touched upon a couple thoughtful pieces published recently - J.A. Adande's look at how the Celtics organization were racial pioneers - which runs counter to perceptions that developed in the '80s - and John Gonzalez's feature-length story on the past and present of athletes' perceptions of Boston racism, from Boston magazine.

A central figure in the history of black athletes and Boston racism is of course the great Bill Russell. Indeed, Adande noted right upfront that Boston "had a long-standing reputation -- fueled in part by stories Bill Russell told -- of being an unfriendly location for African-Americans."

Gonzalez's story included this: "Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell may have been named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players, but that didn't shield him from bigotry during his playing days. Russell, who once called Boston a 'flea market of racism,' even had vandals break into his home just to defecate in his bed."

I decided to look back through Russell's acclaimed autobiographies - Go Up For Glory (1966) and Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man (1979) - to dig a little deeper into his perspective on Boston racism.

I thought that Russ's perspective might be relevant to the issue today, but frankly, it was less so than I expected. His books are really documents of their times - the heart of the civil rights era in the '60s and the aftermath of the ferocious desegregation busing controversies of the '70s, respectively.

As the effects of events of those times still inevitably linger in modern-day Boston, then sure, Russell's experiences are essential background to understanding why athletes' perceptions about Boston may be what they are today. But all in all, his books feel too unique to their particular times to be directly relevant to Boston circa 2008.

That's not to say that Go Up For Glory and Second Wind aren't fascinating. They are. My reaction upon skimming back through them was mainly this: Damn.

The man did not pull any punches whatsoever in terms of expressing what he thought, in unvarnished, uncompromising terms. Modern-day athlete autobios so often seem manufactured to fall somewhere between anodyne and salacious, so it's jarring to me to be reminded how engaging and genuinely provocative the Russell books are. You might love Russ if you read these books or you might hate him, but I'm pretty certain you'll have an strong opinion about him.

Russell's comment about Boston being a "flea market of racism" was from a passage in Second Wind about where he stood in terms of Martin Luther King vs. Malcolm X (note that Russell's co-author, Taylor Branch, is best known for his monumental Pulitzer Prize-winning America in the King Years trilogy - not your average jock ghostwriter!):
    Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had the most passion among black national leaders then, and I was drawn to both of them. When Dr. King's voice rose to that preacher's pitch, and he rocked back and forth in his shoes, all my old church days came back strong. Initially, however, I had the same reservation about Dr. King that I had about the Vietnam War: the white people in Boston liked him, and so I knew something must be wrong. To me, Boston itself was a flea market of racism. It had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form. The city had corrupt, city-hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-'em-back-to-Africa racists, and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists (long before they appeared in New York).

    I had no doubt about those people in Boston because I saw them every day. They constantly surprised me, since I thought of Boston as the city where Paul Revere rode for freedom. If Paul Revere were to ride today, it would be for racism: "The n------ are coming! The n------ are coming!" he'd yell as he galloped through town to warn neighborhoods of busing and black homeowners. Most of the Irish Catholics in Boston were ready to pick your fillings out if you weren't the right religion or from the right clique - much less from the right race - and almost everybody else wouldn't acknowledge you unless you'd gone to the proper school and came from the proper family. I had never been in a city more involved with finding new ways to dismiss, ignore or look down on other people. Other than that, I liked the city.
Whew. I would note that that is part of a particularly fiery and intense passage from Second Wind. In fact, the book includes Russell's thoughts on all manner of topics, including his description of how basketball became mystical and magical for him at its highest moments.

One last note apropos of largely nothing.... In this era in which players' bodies are essentially canvases of avant-garde art, I was amused when I found this passage while flipping through Go Up For Glory:
    I came to Boston in December [1956] and I came in under a lot of pressure.... I was six feet, ten inches tall, and a Negro. And I began wearing a beard, just to be different. After the first season, I let Heinsohn shave my goatee off in the celebration over the world championship.

    The next year I just grew it back. People have commented on the beard ever since. It has become the cause célèbre of the NBA. Everyone says, "He could be a nice guy. Why doesn't he shave that beard?"...

    I wear it maybe to let people know that I am an individual. I am me. It's just something I want to do. It's part of me.
Yes, wearing a goatee was the cause célèbre of the NBA in the late '50s and early '60s. Fairly unfathomable today.


At 9:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for taking the time to bring us his voice in these books--wow, taylor branch. Imagine if someone like AI got a writer of that calliber... thoughtful post, thanks.

At 1:26 AM, Blogger john marzan said...

where's jay aych? is the nba boring or what!

At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said: Imagine if AI got a writer of that caliber....

The writer would quit rather than write the gibberish flowing out of that idiot's mouth. Bill Russell was an M-A-N, MAN, not a fool like Iverson.

God bless Bill Russell. Keep on speaking the truth.

At 11:01 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8:40 PM, Anonymous Steven Wilson said...

Recently, I ran across "Go Up for Glory" at a used book store. As a long time admirer of Bill Russell the basketball player, coach and color commentator, I had to buy the book and read it. My sports consciousness did not come about until the tail-end of Mr. Russell’s playing career and I had not yet discovered sports’ books or sports autobiographies when this book came out. I was still a few years away from that discovery.

“Go Up for Glory” is one of the best sports related books I have ever read. In fact, it is one of the best books I have ever read as it transcends sports and speaks to a critical point in our history as a nation. The book contains many truths that know no bounds of time and some of the issues he addresses remain today at some level. This is a book that holds value today.

Is Mr. Russell well-liked or well-loved? The answer is most likely yes and no. One thing is certain. He is most definitely respected by me.

At 8:35 AM, Anonymous kamagra said...

Indeed Steven, “Go Up for Glory” is a must read book, I read it a few years ago and some passages are still in my mind, the book talks about many truths in our history.

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I don't know why the NBA doesn't do anything to avoid that kind of behavior. It supposed that sports are something that they have been practicing without any racial, cultural and religion discrimination

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