Saturday, July 11, 2009


Bill Russell stories about Red Auerbach and Bill Bradley in "Red and Me", p. 114 ff.:
He was an extraordinarily intuitive psychologist and motivator, and every now and then he made a move on me. I always saw it coming, and I'd let him know it. But I knew it was always in the team's best interests, so I accepted it. Sometimes it even worked on me. For example, my second year I came out like a wild beast and we ate up every opponent, one after another, By the All-Star break, we had a twelve-game lead, and nobody had a prayer of catching us. Maybe that seeped into my psyche because, just after the All-Star game, Red called me into his office. I didn't know it, but I was about to get my first Red Auerbach pep talk. He lit a cigar and said, "I'm so mad, I could bite the head off a ten-penny nail."

"Red. What are you mad about?"

"We got the division sewed up already and we both know that."

I thought that was a good thing. "That's why you're mad?"

He said, "You're coasting! We got the big lead, so I can understand why you're letting up. But all you're doing is coasting just enough to get ready for the playoffs. Even you ain't that good. You can't turn it on and off in this league. You have to go hard all the time, Russ. Christ, you got these guys so terrorized, they can't play against you. But if you let up on them, and they start believing they can play against you, then the can play against you." He puffed at his cigar. "You know, at the end of the year, you should be the MVP in this league. But if you let up, and there's another player on the same page, he'll get it. So you have to take it off the table. Leave no doubt at all."

It was a masterful performance. Half scold, half flattering pep talk, in a soft, calm tone. He knew I was a very proud man. He was punching me to make me play with more pride, and tougher and meaner. He might as well have said, "Remember Kenny Sears!" He left something unsaid on the table, too. He was hinting subtly that the NBA was over 90 percent white, which we both knew was a factor in MVP selections. That night, I went out and broke the league record for rebounds in a game with thirty-nine.


Red worked me over this way all season, sparking me here and there, trying to keep me ferocious to win, just like he was. As always, his real target was implied rather than overt. One time, he casually remarked that an opposing player had been on a run against me lately, playing great. I barely heard it, yet it marinated until I wondered, "Now, when did that guy ever play me good?" Bang! I couldn't wait to get to that guy the next time we played. But if you let up on them , and they start believing they can play against you, then they can play against you.

In one game in the mid-1960s, Bill Bradley, the gifted small forward on the New York Knicks, was having a particularly good night against my teammate Satch Sanders. Satch was a very good player, but on this night, Bradley kept finding ways around him to make all these open shots. Now, I was on the floor trying to help my teammates. But, just like Red on the bench, I couldn't help Satch physically, so I decided to try my own psychology. I always strived to play what I called The Perfect Game. My perception of The Perfect Game involved a whole bunch of criteria: shooting percentage, free throw percentage, total rebounds, total blocked shots, assists, screens - and conversations. Why conversations? The power of language.

I took Satch aside and said, "You know, Satch, on the uniforms there's a big number and a small number. The big number's on the back. The small number's on the front. I know you haven't seen that small one yet, but trust me, it's there." Translation: "That's Bradley's back you're seeing as he goes by you. Front him more, so he can't get past."

It didn't help. In the last quarter, one of the Knicks was at the free throw line, ready to shoot a foul shot. I was standing on one side of the foul lane and Satch was on the other side, right next to his friend, Mr. Bradley. I saw these two guys standing together and I thought, "Something's wrong with this picture." I was team captain then, so when the guy prepared to shoot the foul, I called to the referee, "Hold it up." The referee took the ball back, and I stepped slowly across the lane to Satch and looked him in the eyes, hard. Then I talked just loud enough for him and Bradley to hear. "Satch, can you guard this motherfucker?" I rarely used that word. I was telling Satch, without saying it, "This guy you're guarding isn't just another ballplayer. He's a motherfucker! He has no respect for you! He thinks you can't guard him!"

Satch grunted, "Yeah, I can guard him."

I said, "Well, goddamn it, do it!" I turned around and stepped back to my side of the lane. That performance was for Bill Bradley's benefit - it had nothing to do with Satch. In fact, Satch didn't do anything differently after that. But Bradley did: he had a lousy final quarter, and that was a big reason we won the game. Years later, when Bill Bradley ran for president, I went around the country with him. In Iowa one night, he reminded me about that incident - it still bothered him! He said, "Russ, what the hell was that?" I told him it was designed to get inside his head. He said, "It did. It threw off my concentration and I couldn't do anything right the rest of the game." I said, "Courtesy William F. Russell, Doctor of Psychological Warfare!" And we shared a good laugh

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