In September of last year I returned to Waterville for the celebration honoring the 50th anniversary of the Colby men’s soccer program. After a comically sloppy and mercifully short scrimmage, we attended a banquet at the alumni center. It felt like a reunion of a second family, uniting generations of men through our common defining experience.
For the past five years I had been researching and writing a biography of Bill Russell, the star center of the Boston Celtics from 1956 to 1969. But it was only at the banquet, surrounded by friends and reminiscing about past glories, that I realized how much playing soccer at Colby had shaped my understanding of Russell.
On the face of it, that might seem ridiculous. Russell presided over what I call the “Basketball Revolution”—the sport’s emergence from its ramshackle, regional roots into a national commercial spectacle, accompanied by an influx of African-American stars. He transformed American team sports history. He also emerged from poverty, attacked racism, and forged a distinctive path for black athletes amidst the upheavals of the civil rights movement.
My teammates and I, by contrast, were mostly products of white suburbia, playing a sport with flimsy roots in American culture. Our fan base consisted of our friends and parents. Unlike Russell, moreover, I was a slow-footed, foul-prone defender who deserved the spottiness of my playing time. But a key part of Russell’s story is his personal search for meaning; basketball compelled him to both question and articulate his identity. On some level, every biographer identifies with his or her subject. Upon reflection I grasped that I shared something important with Russell. Our teammates had taught us some similar lessons—about the significance of sports, about the meaning of victory, about the value of team.
Russell had long worried that sport had no social value, but he eventually appreciated its aesthetic, even spiritual, dimensions. He described times when a feeling spread across the court, “and we’d all levitate. Then the game would just take off, and there’d be a natural ebb and flow that reminded you how rhythmic and musical basketball is supposed to be.” Here was sport as mutually collaborative art, each individual’s actions dependent upon his teammates and opponents, achieving some feeling of transcendence.
I still catch myself daydreaming about long-ago soccer games, but, given my athletic limitations, I own no memories of scoring goals or dribbling around defenders. What I do remember is the perfect geometry of consecutive quick passes, their sharp angles complemented by players’ looping runs; the subtle and instant understandings of teammates’ intentions, forged by years of practice; the wild scrambles for loose balls in front of open nets; the explosions of rage and elation. Like the man I wrote about, I cherish the beauty, harmony, and passion of team play.
As many basketball fans know, Russell vomited before important games. The physical and mental rigors of the season drained him of energy, filled him with anguish. But his investment in winning proved historic: his University of San Francisco teams won two consecutive NCAA titles, and the Boston Celtics won an astonishing 11 NBA championships in his 13 seasons. This impulse originally derived from the insecurities of his youth, when detractors shortchanged his unconventional skills and hated his skin color. But winning defined his identity; in collaboration with his teammates, he forged his sport’s most distinctive historical legacy.
Winning became part of our identity at Colby, as well. In my senior year we won 16 times and lost only once. We sometimes stole games in overtime, sometimes dominated overmatched teams, and most often established a narrow lead before withholding onslaughts. Unlike with Russell’s Celtics, these wins do not matter—they should not matter—to anyone but my old team. But they still matter to us. Winning bound us together. We proved ourselves to each other. Memories of that season still fill me with warm pride. We learned sport’s most valuable lesson: a team can be greater than the sum of its individual parts.
Russell once reflected that “the key to being a Celtic, if there’s any one thing, is you have to be a man and accept responsibility for your actions.” To understand his personal journey—how his lifelong quest for respect led to basketball’s greatest dynasty—I needed to understand the meaning of his team. And that was a lesson I had already learned, well before I ever contemplated writing this book. My Colby teammates taught me what Russell knew. They taught me about earning and giving respect. They taught me about commitment to a greater goal. Maybe most important, they taught me to trust something bigger than myself.