ONCE IN A TELEVISED game Walt Frazier made a move, and kept moving, drew a foul and got off a shot for which there seemed to be no room, spatially or conceptually. Bill Russell was announcing. "That's what makes a great player," he cackled. "imagination."
Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, by Russell and journalist Taylor Branch, is about imagination. Before he was basketball's tangiest announcer, Russell was its most triumphant player -- the reigning Boston celtics' magically staunch defender, rebounder, coordinator and deliverer-in-the-clutch. Sportswriters often credit athlets with "artistry"; this book confirms that Russell deserved it.
As a lonesome youth in Oakland, he aspired to be an architect and pored over art books in the public librry. "I would study a Michelangelo for hours, trying to memorize each little detail, working on one section of the painting at a time . . . I would psych myself up for the acid test; drawing the painting from memory . . . When I'd finished, the outline and general shapes would resemble the painting closely, but the details would be cockeyed and jarring."
The technique served him well, however, when, at 18, after an undistinguished high school basketball career, he realized he could close his eyes and replay another player's moves "on the inside of my eyelids. Usually I'd catch only part of a particular move the first time I tried this; I'd miss the head work or the way the ball was carried or maybe the sequence of steps. But the next time I saw the move I'd catch a little more of it, so that soon I could call up a complete picture."
Then he found that he could rerun the image repeatedly, "each time inserting a part of me . . . Finally I saw myself making the whole move . . . ." And when he left the bench, he found that he could act this image out. "I could barely contain myself, I was so elated I thought I'd float right out of the gym . . . Now for the first time I had transferred something from my head to my body."
In time Russell developed that process to the point that he could imagine himself mirroring , thus counteracting, other players' moves; finally, he could envisage complex team-to-team maneuvers.
Russell's favorite moments in basketball, he says, were when both teams were playing so well that "I'd find myself thinking, 'This is it. I want this to keep going.' and I'd actually be rooting for the other team, too.
"I'd be . . . straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The game would move so quickly that every face, cut and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me . . . . Even before the other team brought the ball in bounds, I could feel it so keenly that I'd want to shout to my teammates, 'It's coming there!' -- except that I knew everything would change if I did. My premonitions would be consistently correct and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me."
Russell speaks a great deal of his relations with women, some of whom are rousing characters. One, a stripper, turned him on to Frantz Fanon. Another, whom he calls iodine, stabbed him to the bone between playoff games. But the intimacies he reports most authoritatively are those he enjoyed with opponents like Elgin Baylor ("We'd both take off and go up in the air together, with him wiggling around the way he always did . . . We'd both laugh . . . He had an instinctive awareness of the eccentricities of my game") and Wilt Chamberlain ("We had some high-octane rebounding. . . . If we really made a simultaneous run at each other, the game would vibrate").
He is a good reporter on his black boyhood in segragated Louisiana, his adolescence in tough Oakland and hish manhood around the biased world. His explication of his roots is considerably sharper and livelier than Roots . When a white man backed by all of Louisiana's temporal authority told Russell's grandfather, "Nigger, I'm going to make you" do something, the grandfather answered, "Sir, you and who else?" Russell's parents were similarly redoubtable, and when Russell became famous and a world traveler, he "would sometimes answere the people who called me uppity by saying, I don't think it matters to you who I think I am.'"
Some of Russell's further perfections on the ego are less lucid, and on politics less original, than those of his insights which spring directly from the home place or the hardwood. Some are even Fla. Whose words are those particular ones is always a vexing question in a book by two people. At times I wished this were either a book by Branch or a recorded soliloquy by Russell. In an introductory authors' note, Branch is referred to as "the writer" and Russell as "the subject." That seems Inexact.
But for the most part this is a fine rendition of Russell, whose story is a rich mixture of wonderment and control. After receiving, almost fortuitously, a basketball scholarship to the University of San Francisco, "I found myself," he remembers, "in a sea of white people. Jesuit priests in stiff collars lectured me about Thomist theology, and students spent a lot of time earnestly discussing subjects like Chinese brainwashing techniques. I never knew what to expect. If they'd taken me out of class one day and fired me into space as the first astronaut, I'd have taken it in stride." After working it out between his eyelids and his eyes.