Are you a basketball player?”
“No I am not. Basketball is what I do; it’s not who I am. I’m a man, and basketball is my profession.”
I’ve seen variations on that quote by Bill Russell for years. Sometimes he’s responding directly to a fan, sometimes he tells a fan that he’s not a basketball player, to then be questioned by John Havlicek before Russell fully explained his reasoning behind the statement. He was a man. He was a human. Anything else was secondary.
And of course, the enigma here comes from the simple fact that the man saying it was, with the exception of one or two players to come later, maximum, the greatest basketball player who ever lived. Or as he might prefer it, the greatest person who happened to partake in basketball as a job.
But I love that line. It was supremely confident, on one level, which matched the supreme confidence and dedication by which he lived his life, on the court and off. But it also illustrated that he insisted on seeing himself as more than just an athlete and, by that turn, entertainer. He came of age and played at a time of extreme racism and prejudice in America, and he reacted by refusing to be boxed in by bigotry. On the court, he played for himself, his teammates and his organization. No one else. Off the court, he worked for the betterment of Black Americans and, in turn, all Americans. He refused to play along with the segregationist policies of the time. And when pushed, he put his reputation and livelihood on the line.
It sets a high standard. And in my personal life, I’ve begun to cling to the idea of not being defined by employment. I used to tell others about that line whenever they might have been having trouble at work, and as the years have gone on, I’ve realized that I was really talking to myself. Not that work is an issue, but it’s just that I don’t see myself as the guy at my job. I’m someone else.
We lost Bill Russell a few weeks ago. It’s important to note that Bill Russell the basketball player hasn’t existed since 1969, but we don’t grieve that day the way we do July 31, 2022. In the time since, he’s been a coach, worked in film and on T.V., written books, received doctorates for his civil rights work and, eventually, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
He never stopped working. He was always more than a basketball player. But for the time that was his profession, he was a great one. And he was always somehow a greater man.