[Braham Dabscheck is an industrial relations scholar, sports writer and enthusiast, and author of Reading Baseball: Books, Biographies, and the Business of the Game, published April 2011, by FiT. He has written extensively on many aspects of sport, and he continues with that tradition today by offering a review of King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution. Dabscheck is a man proper from Down Under, and out of respect for his Australian English, no edits have been made to his vernacular.]
Aram Goudsouzian, King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 2010, xxii + 423 pp.
In times past, most writing on sport highlighted what might be called its glory, the achievements of champion teams and stellar players. In more recent years there has developed a genre of writing which focuses on the inherent alienation of sport, of how it has a cruel effect on the life of its participants. After all, sport is work—work which occurs in one of the most (if not the most) highly competitive environments, where one’s every act, not only on the field and in training, but also off the field, is subject to unrelenting scrutiny and criticism. Sport is also seen as performing additional functions, or acting as a signifier for broader social norms for those caught up in its net. While fans may dream and hope of one day playing sport at the highest level, for players it may amount to nothing more than a living hell.
William Felton Russell is one of the most important figures in the history of basketball. He pioneered the development of basketball above the rim with his focus on defence, rebounding and the fast break. He was a champion player who won two National College Athletic Association championships with the University of San Francisco in a 55-game winning streak, a gold medal with the US basketball team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and eleven National Basketball Association championships in thirteen seasons with the Boston Celtics (1957-1969); three of these as player coach. He had less successful coaching stints with the Seattle Supersonics (1973-1977) and Sacramento Kings (1987-1988).
Bill Russell was an African American whose exploits and success were seen as an icon for African Americans in the civil rights struggles during the second half of the twentieth century. Both his father and grandfather taught Bill Russell to stand up for his dignity and when pushed too far, to push back (p. 7). Much of Aram Goudsouuzian’s King of the Court is devoted to how the various teams that Russell played with at school, university and the Celtics were able to transcend the racial divide which afflicted America. Amongst other things, he had the distinction of being the first African American to manage a major sporting franchise. The Boston Celtics, especially with him at the helm, in the latter part of the 1960s (and let us not forget 1968, that terrible year when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated), were seen as an exemplar, or lighthouse, of what America could be.
Russell was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement. Unlike most other African American athletes who had been tutored by those who know such things to be humble and thankful for the ‘bounty’ sport provided (take the money and run), he attended marches and rallies, gave speeches, developed organizations and donated funds to further the progress of racial integration. Goudsouzian situates Russell in these developments of what Harry Edwards described as The Revolt of the Black Athlete (1970).
While Russell was a great player and one of basketball’s greatest competitors, his life was one of misery. He was always anxious and threw up before games. He barely slept more than a couple of hours a night. While with the Celtics he was able to develop team cohesion, he was highly competitive with teammates and opponents as to who was the best player. He needed to be the best to overcome deep-seated feelings of personal inadequacy. He was a great contrarian. He would not acknowledge the support of fans. He would not sign autographs. He was highly sensitive to perceived slights against his dignity and racial slurs and intolerance. Despite being a highly talented and much-lauded player, he was subjected to the intolerance of Jim Crow, denied access to hotels, restaurants and so on—something which acted like acid on his spirit. His private life was a mess, or more of a disaster. Married life did not provide him with happiness. He lived apart from his wife and children. He discovered the pleasures of the flesh; but that lost its sting. A second marriage ended. His coaching stints with Seattle and Sacramento were a failure. He could not get on with players, belittling their efforts. Russell was an enigma. His life was a quest to receive respect for himself as a man, but respect was something he rarely afforded to others.
Russell had inconsistencies: he wanted love and emitted hate, he wanted peace, and proclaimed anger, he wanted respect and projected arrogance. But that was the point. He was a human being, not a symbol. His ideas sprung from different sources and his personality embodied different elements. He would not craft an image to garner goodwill (p. 157).
Russell was a complicated man living in difficult times (p. xx). Goudsouzian displays great skill in explaining how this complicated man lived through these difficult times. He takes readers through a journey which explains how basketball evolved from a ‘bush’ to a big league and how African Americans found their way into this city-dominated game. Information is provided on the growth of basketball, its relationship with broadcasting, the importance of rival leagues and the trajectory of industrial relations. Goudsouzian also examines the links between sport and the civil rights movement and the changing role of African Americans, as exemplified by Russell, in this transition. Goudsouzian writes with great insight about a supreme athlete who experienced so much alienation from an activity in which he excelled.