Surprising Individualist


Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, by Bill Russell and Taylor Branch, New York: Random House/Ballantine, 1979, 303 pp., $9.95/$2.75.

When I turned on the TV one morning and saw that Phil Donahue's guest was a former basketball star, I was a bit disappointed—not being a sports fan. But I decided to leave the set on anyway while I did my morning exercises. I soon discovered that this fellow Bill Russell, renowned former coach/player of the perennial champion Boston Celtics, is no ordinary sports figure. Indeed, he is no ordinary man. He is a truth seeker, possessed of charm, intelligence, and profound insight. His book of memoirs displays these characteristics in abundance.

Beginning with his childhood days in Louisiana, Russell (with coauthor Taylor Branch) takes us on a fascinating journey through his basketball career and beyond, pointing out mileposts in his personal development in a thoroughly entertaining manner. He gives us vivid pictures from his youth, describing, for example, his awe upon witnessing his irritated grandfather knock out a mule with one punch, or telling how his impromptu naps in church were abruptly terminated by a mighty flick to his skull delivered by an unsympathetic oldster in the pew behind.

We learn of Russell's close relationship with his mother, who believed young Bill was destined for something special, and the profound effect her unexpected death had on him when he was 12 years old. He tells us, too, of the strong personalities of his father and grandfather, from whom, it is clear, he learned much.

One can't help but be impressed by Russell's diligent pursuit of excellence as he moves from high school, through college, to pro ball—all the while having a great deal of fun, as his delightful accounts of on- and off-court antics show. Impressive, too is his constant openness to new ideas and experiences, his determination continually to learn about life and himself.

Russell expresses himself on a wide variety of subjects from international relations and the Founding Fathers to King Kong, the Hall of Fame, and autographs (he doesn't sign them). He seldom does something or refrains from doing something without having reasons. Constantly on guard against allowing his personality to be shaped by events, Russell comes through as an uncompromising proponent of self-responsibility, steadfastly pursuing "a life of principles."

Though a man of considerable pride, Russell is nonetheless capable of laughing at his shortcomings and inviting the reader to do likewise. He tells of "two bizarre fears" regarding his first wife, Rose: the first, that he would be unable to open a jar for her; the second, that she would ask him a question he couldn't answer. Regarding the latter Russell writes, "I could never figure out what would lie on the other side of that moment, and I didn't like to think about it because it made me feel fragile."

We are given glimpses of the ugly face of racism as well as triumphs over it. It's difficult to keep one's eyes from misting up as one reads of Russell's grandfather weeping with joy at the sight of white and black players showering together after a game and telling the story over and over to astounded listeners back home. Russell follows this account with one of many perceptive comments: "My grandfather was overwhelmed by what he'd seen and what it meant, my father was grateful for it, and I, the young ornery one, was looking way past the showers to the dark corners where I saw bigotry still hiding."

In a chapter titled "Freedom," Russell reveals an understanding of freedom and its detractors that one seldom encounters outside of libertarian literature. For example: "I've noticed how often people are irritated when someone else practices freedom. It upsets them, and they fall all over themselves to stop someone from doing whatever it is that they don't like. They try intimidation, and if this doesn't work they'll use rules, laws and even guns."

The authoritarians who insist upon treating the rest of society like children don't fool Russell: "Whenever I sense someone speaking about somebody else with a parental attitude, I figure somebody's freedom is about to be attacked. It doesn't matter whether they're kind or stern parents; the parental mind-set paves the way for them to deny somebody else's rights."

Unlike many who feel threatened when others live by values that differ from their own, Russell considers nonconformists a natural and interesting part of a free society. "Of course you'll find oddballs and bizarre doings wherever freedom is practiced," he writes. "That's part of the idea."

But what about the children being exposed to all of this? It's not right, he feels, to hide things from his children. "I have too much respect for them to do so. My duty to them is to love them and to help them interpret the world so that they will be able to make free choices and act on them." The best medicine for his worries about his children is, he says, "in their strength and independence, not in their ignorance."

There are many more fine thoughts as well as amusing anecdotes in this excellent book, but you'll have to read it yourself if you want to hear them. Bill Russell is an individualist extraordinaire who takes the reader into his confidence and reveals himself in a sensitive and serious, yet engagingly light-hearted, way. Libertarians and Mr. Russell are kindred spirits. They should make each other's acquaintance.

Charles Eimermann is a lithographer.