August 3, 2022

Bill Russell

Bill Russell

Most of us admire great athletes and champions, because we recognize how much work they have to do and how much disciplines and self-sacrifice they have to practice to excel.  For me, Bill Russell, who passed away Sunday, July 31, 2022, was the athlete I most admired.

I not only watched him and rooted for him as a Boston Celtic player, but I read both the books he authored or co-authored and watched every video in which he was profiled or interviewed.   I read and re-read many time Russell's Rules: 11 Lessons on Leadership from the 20th Century's Greatest Winner, a book he c0-authored with David Falker in 2001, which had remarkable insights on leadership well beyond sports.

As an athlete and a coach, his record of success surpasses that of any other professional athlete:  2 NCAA national basketball championships, 11 NBA titles in 13 years (although in one of the other two years, he was injured in the finals and unable to play), and one Olympic gold medal.  He re-invented and re-thought defense and his rebounding and passing was unparalleled in setting up offensive fast breaks.  

But, as he wrote in the Foreword to his Russell Rules book, being a basketball star was what he did, not who he was.  He was a courageous, uncompromising and eloquent spokesman and advocate for civil rights of all kinds. He had both a deep self-confidence that his team could always win, but the humility and self-awareness never to take success for granted.  He was both an individualist with the ability to carve out a unique identity as a transformational star, but the ultimate team player who never believed that he could succeed alone.

One of the more revealing comments he made when asked about players like Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and LeBron James when they won major championships was that his team would have won most of the time because they would let these superstars shine, but defeat their teams by superior depth and intelligence at the rest of the match-ups.

One of my personal favorite chapters in one of his books was how he achieved his team goals stealthily.  For example, he knew that Wilt Chamberlain's success with his fadeaway jump shot depended on him being within a certain distance from the basket.  Russell knew that if he could position himself to move Chamberlain a foot away in any direction from that spot, he could reduce Chamberlain's effectiveness considerably.  He understood the criticality of small successes to much bigger results.  

He also understood that, in a competitive contest, not awakening the "sleeping giant" opponent, like Chamberlain, was very important.  I always considered myself a stealth change agent who was most successful by not arousing opposition to something that needed to be done.  Russell's commentary made me much more self conscious about how to do this.

Every one of us has a finite time on earth. His lifespan of 88 years was well beyond what might have been predicted when he grew up in poverty in Louisiana and the Bay Area.

The greatest of us have an impact far beyond that time.  Bill Russell is in the pantheon of human beings whose impact on sports, civil rights, and society will be felt far beyond his lifetime. Consistent with his leadership philosophy, some of the biggest impacts he will continue to have will be of profound importance.  He will not get the credit for them, but wherever he is beyond this earth, he will probably do his unique, deep laugh and feel satisfied that he made a difference for the greater good.