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Jewish World Review April 28, 2000 / 23 Nissan, 5760

Chris Matthews

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Consumer Reports


Bill Russell and American racism -- I JUST WATCHED a TV program that made me ashamed of myself.

Titled "My Life, My Way," it was an HBO documentary on Bill Russell, the University of San Francisco great who became the most formidable winner in NBA history, leading the Boston Celtics to 11 national championships in his 13 years.

The brutal fact is that during his college and professional years, this historic figure failed to win the respect of a lot of fans. Russell's handicap was his ethnicity: He was an African-American entering the national athletic arena at a time -- the 1950s -- when whites still clung to their endangered image of superiority.

For this, Russell suffered worse punishment than he ever experienced under the backboard, a world he would dominate as no player in history.

At the University of San Francisco, this scholarship student from Oakland found himself on campus with white Catholic students who didn't like blacks -- and said so to his face.

"I think there were black students, but then there were always a few guys around who thought it was OK to say or do what they wanted," Russell recalls. "But it wasn't all right."

In 1955, he had to take it when this casual hatred of his color was administered officially. After taking USF to the national championship, after winning 28 out of 29 games, after being named the most-valuable player in the NCAA tournament, Russell was named just runner-up as Northern California player of the year.

He took the same damning with faint praise from the white fans in Boston when he elevated that city from contender to champion to dynasty in those glory years of the late 1950s and 1960s.

It was not until the arrival of Larry Bird that all those red-faced Beantown kids discovered that their true love belonged to the Celtics not the Bruins, that they really did prefer, after all, the American-made sport of basketball to ice hockey.

We Americans, better than anyone in the world, know why. How many times have whites like me counted the number of white players on a team before deciding whom to root for?

The great irony is that Bill Russell, a man rejected by so many for a starting spot on the American team, was the guy who understood in his mind and heart that basketball games are only won when everyone plays for the team. That the final score is not how we do compared to each other -- that was Wilt Chamberlain's game -- but how well the team does together.

"If I was going to start a team, I would pick Bill Russell first," Bill Bradley said recently, "because he's the ultimate winner and the ultimate team player and the smartest player there ever was."

I am ashamed that I didn't see this -- didn't want to see it -- because of the racism that still haunts me and my country to this day.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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