Bill Russell pays tribute to his coach, mentor and friend in this book.
Just one year after losing Game 6 to the Boston Celtics by the largest margin in NBA Finals history, the Los Angeles Lakers returned to the finals last night by routing the Denver Nuggets, 119-92, on Denver’s home court.
The Lakers put on an impressive display of team basketball.
Center Pau Gasol put the full range of his considerable skills on display last night, dropping in left handed hooks and bank shots to the right, hitting outside jumpers and making probing passes to the healed and bulked up Andrew Bynum. Trevor Ariza continued his impressive playoff run, getting the Lakers off to a strong start with 10 first quarter points and dropping in wide open trifectas. Lamar Odom was stroking the ball from inside and outside, and Luke Walton maintained his strong play off the bench.
Then there was Kobe.
The ruthless, driven remarkably talented Bryant poured in 35 points on 12 of 20 shooting, driving, hitting outside shots with defenders draped on him and generally directing his team.
This will be Bryant’s sixth trip to the finals, and Phil Jackson has been on the bench for all of them.
The nattily dressed Zen Master will be trying for the third time to break Red Auerbach’s record of nine NBA titles. He and Bryant appeared to have ironed out the problems that existed during the tumultuous Kobe-Shaq era, which culminated in the 2004 defeat in the finals at the hands of the Detroit Pistons, whose triumph was heralded by many as teamwork trumping superstar talent.
Jackson chronicled what was then his last year with the Lakers in The Last Season: A Team In Search of Its Soul, and the picture he painted of Bryant was not a pretty one. While Jackson does show that he believes the conflict between his two megastars was unnecessary and drained the team’s effectiveness, he leaves little doubt that his sympathies were with his big man.
At one point, in fact, he tried to have Bryant traded to the New Jersey Nets for point guard Jason Kidd.
Still, time off, winning and Bryant’s assuming full control of the team on the floor after Shaq’s departure does appear to have healed those wounds and differences, and Bryant and Jackson appear to be operating harmoniously together.
If the Lakers defeat the winner of the Cavs/Magic series-NBA executives have probably secretly hoping for, and advertisers have been hyping, a LeBron/Kobe finals matchup for months-Bryant will have four titles.
The man atop the championship summit, and arguably the greatest winner in American team sports history, is Bill Russell.
Russell’s University of San Francisco teams won 55 consecutive and back to back NCAA titles before he joined the gold medal-winning Olympic team in Melbourne and then lead the Celtics to an unprecedented and unmatched 11 titles in 13 seasons.
Auerbach was involved in all of them, either as a coach or an executive.
Russell writes about Auerbach in Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend, a slender and heartfelt meditation on the bond that grew between these two fiercely proud and competitive men.
Visually, the two made an unlikely pair. But the lean, proud Russell, who hailed from Louisiana, and the short, feisty Jewish coach from Brooklyn were an enormously effective tandem on the court.
Russell makes it clear that the bonds were not forged instantly, but rather they took years to build. He acknowledges that he did not instantly trust Auerbach and that the two had to figure out how best to work with each other and their teammates. Russell writes forthrightly about times when he disobeyed his coach’s instructions, yet part of Auerbach’s genius was that he could maintain one set of rules for his center, another for the rest of the team, and maintain team cohesion.
The trust that became the bedrock of the friendship was forged through adversity. During one memorable brawl against the Philadelphia 76ers, behemoth center and Russell archrival Wilt Chamberlain threatened Auerbach.
Russell had Red’s back.
Readers of many basketball books, including John Taylor’s The Rivalry, which I blogged about in December, will recognize much of the on court material.
Red and Me is about more than basketball, though.
Russell says that he and Auerbach left things unsaid between them, but is confident that the deep respect and love he felt were mutual. He shares how touched he was that one of Auerbach’s daughters phoned him shortly after his death in 2006 so that he wouldn’t learn of it through the media.
And he talks about the people who formed his strong sense of self, of his gun-toting grandfather who refused to kowtow to white men in the Jim Crow South, of his father, who he knew only as “Mister Charlie,” and of his mother, who taught him never to back away from who he was and what he wanted.
There are tender moments, too.
Russell shares that Auerbach felt demeaned and stripped on his entree to returned phone call during the ill-fated Rick Pitino era when his title of president was removed.
In the end, the two men connected by watching the game that had brought them together and provided the basis for their bone deep friendship. The book’s final photograph shows Russell sitting a row behind Auerbach in the stands as they take in a game.
I wrote yesterday about my father turning 75 years old. Russell, too, was born in 1934, hitting the same milestone in February. One can sense in the book an impulse toward reflection and sorting out his life journey-forces that have motivated him to pay tribute to the man who influenced him mightily on and off the court.
As great as Kobe’s skills are, and to whatever degree his relationship with Jackson has healed, it’s almost impossible to picture him writing a book like that.
Will the Lakers win the championship?
Is Jackson a greater coach than Auerbach?
Was Russell a greater player than Michael Jordan because of his 11 championship rings?