Most biographers are skilled in bringing people to life, tracing the path from birth to grave, revealing the influences that shaped the life of the subject.
Aram Goudsouzian ’94 is a skilled biographer, and his exploration of the life of basketball great Bill Russell, King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, does all of the above. The book recounts Russell’s family leaving the Jim Crow South for Oakland, Calif., the death of his mother, Katie, when he was 12, and Russell’s metamorphosis from a gangly, awkward teenager (he didn’t make varsity in high school) to a professional star who singlehandedly changed the way the game was played.
But Goudsouzian combines the biographer’s eye for detail with the historian’s broad view of time and place (he previously turned his spotlight on actor Sidney Poitier). King of the Court is a fascinating sports biography, but it is also a prism through which to view the dramatic changes in American society that took place during Russell’s career.
Consider that in the 1950s organized basketball was a methodical, slow-moving game played by whites; the style of ball played today, with soaring drives and gravity-defying dunks, was then belittled as “Negro” basketball, Goudsouzian writes.
Goudsouzian reminds us that Russell grew up at a time when schools remained segregated, the National Basketball Association was “a white league,” and the most talented African-American players were recruited for exhibition teams like the Harlem Globetrotters. Enter Russell, a college star (leading the University of San Francisco to national titles) but still the only black player on the Boston Celtics. Within months Russell had established himself as one of the most dominant, innovative basketball players in the league.
Yet the star center had to endure racial epithets from opposing fans and couldn’t eat with the team in whites-only restaurants. “I was excluded from almost everything except practice and the games,” he said.
Soon Russell had become one of the most well-known and highly regarded professional athletes in the world, yet he kept fandom at arm’s length, Goudsouzian recounts. Russell, whose pride was unflinching, rebuffed a country that would laud his athletic abilities while discriminating against him because of his race, seeing him one-dimensionally. “He fretted that people considered him ‘a fine young animal,’” Goudsouzian writes, “rather than someone who considered ‘social problems, philosophical concepts, deep thoughts of any kind.’”
And Russell considered all of those things. He refused to accept that the civil rights movement must be nonviolent and multiracial, espousing a philosophy closer to that of Malcolm X than Martin Luther King Jr. He traveled to and invested in Liberia, praising that country’s safeguarding of human rights. He derided the conventional wisdom that “sport promoted black uplift,” and refused to ignore Boston’s own racism. He would not compromise his manhood and demanded that others recognize him as a complete and complex person.
The book isn’t all about Russell’s complexities off the court, however. Russell’s rivalry with Wilt Chamberlain is revealingly explored, as are his close relationship with Celtics coach Red Auerbach and his own NBA coaching career, which broke down a racial barrier.
The championship series of the 1960s are dramatically recounted (in choosing academe, Goudsouzian, who teaches at the University of Memphis, cost the world a topnotch sportswriter), and in the end Russell emerges as a supremely talented athlete determined to win on the court and to find and maintain his place in the world around it.
It is a tale about, as Goudsouzian writes, “Russell’s lifelong quest for meaning, a journey through sport and race and women and fame, a journey past childhood scars, past triumphs, past bitterness, past ego, past fears and frailties.”
It’s a story well told and worth reading.