For a minute, Bill Russell was worried.
He is going to be the stand-up host for the "Saturday Night Live" television show this week.
He was worried because last week's host was Steve Martin and how do you get funnier than Steve Martin without getting yourself put away?
Then Russell remembered another Saturday Night Live host.
Unfunny at any speed Nader.
Right away Bill Russell felt better.
"I can't be funnier than Ralph Nader," Russell said.
If a giraffe could laugh -- to borrow a line from Russell's new book, "Second Wind: The memoirs of an Opinionated Man" -- the animal might hear itself mention Ralph Nader and then cackle/roar in reassuring recognition that the only funny thing about Nader is his tailor, who presses Ralph's suits with combat boots.
At breakfast with Russell yesterday, someone asked the author/columnist/Tv announcer/old Celtics basketball player/retired coach what he hoped his book would say to readers.
"Buy me," Russell said. And he punctuated the sentence with that wonderful giraffe laugh we came to know when he was Ma Bell's TV salesman along with his buddy, Ronnie Watts. "You know why you're my friend?" Russell said to Watts yesterday. "It's God's punishment for making me so handsome. 'You can't have it all.'"
Ralph Nader couldn't carry Bill Russell's typewriter.
"I saw something interesting last night," Russell said.
"Jimmy Carter on TV with big ratings." Russell said he noticed the baseball commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, speaking into the back of the president's neck, presumably supplying intimate information the Georgia softball pitcher might use in addressing the World Series hero, Willie Stargell.
"Jimmy probably wanted to know, 'Who is this big colored guy here?'" Russell said.
While Russell has no idea what he'll do on "Saturday Night Live," he said, "It will gravitate toward my talents."
"And what," someone said, "might they be?" "This interview," Russell said, his laughter filling the room, "is over. I don't have to sit here and take this."
At 45, three years removed from his job as general manager-coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, 10 years removed from his unforgettable artistry with the Celtics, Bill Russell is, in fact working on his life with the second wind of his mimoir's title.
For anyone long fascinated by Russell's iron will and brightly burning pride, to forget a moment his athletic abilities both gifted and learned, "Second Wind" is a revelation.
"Henri Christophe was my first hero after my mother," Russell wrote of the black emperor who built the Citadel atop a 3,000-foot peak in Haiti after making the country the first free black nation in the hemisphere. "To me, he was just the opposite of a slave: he would not be one. He was indomitable."
Russell's grandfather, the Old Man, argued with a white farmer who said, "Nigger, don' you tell me what you ain't gonna do. I'll make you do it."
The Old Man grew angry. "Sir, he said, "you and who else?"
A child of rural Louisianna in the late 1930s who moved to Oakland at age 9, Bill Russell became -- almost magically, he says -- a basketball player indomitable, a man proud of what he was and damned ready to fight you and anybody else you brought along.
He never explained himself to us. He helped Boston Celtics become champions 11 times in 13 seasons, eight of those championships in succession. With a body created for the task -- he is 6 feet 10, he was a jumper capable of a 6-foot-8 high jump -- and with hours and years of effort, he transformed basketball at al levels by showing it was good, very good, to play defense and block shots.
"I didn't hide what I was," Russell said. "Nobody wanted to know. Remember, this was 1956 when I joined the Celtics. In Boston then, most of the writers were untalented. They assured they knew more than I could know.
"And I was not 'a basketball player.' I was a 'black basketball player.' You're talking about Boston. I was never considered a man who plays basketball, I was a black basketball player.
"So there was no reason that what I am would ever come out. There was no interest in where I was from."
Russell grew up dreaming of being an architect, not a basketball player. From the Oakland Public Library, he carried home prints of Da Vinci and Micheangelo. He memorized details and tried to reproduce the printings himself, to no avail: "It always looked as if Michelangelo had sent his work into the nursery for completion."
But what Russell saw on a basketball court, he could reproduce with his body. Closing his eyes, he saw moves as if watching a film. He inserted his own body into the film. Eventually his mindfilms came to be intricate 10-man choreographies with Russell, the artist, knowing where each man would move before the move was made.
The strength of Russell always was in the man, not the athlete, and that is what his book is about, his griefs and loves, outrages and apologies, angers and wonders. Basketball is behind him -- "Want to know the truth about what I think about the NBA today? I don't look at it. There's a heluva lot of other things going on." --but life is in front and he is as bright and proud as e ver.
Someone mentioned Frank Robinson, an Oriole coach who was baseball's first black manager. Robinson was fired by Cleveland two years ago and since has been called about only one job, a coach's job.
"Why is it that they play musical chairs with manager's jobs but Frank can't get up from one seat and sit in another the way white men do?" said Russell, the NBA's first black coach in 1966.
"I don't blame baseball. Coverage by the media is such that it fosters that kind of stuff. Sportscasters and sportswriters talking and writing about players make racial distinctions in the way they portray blacks as opposed to whites.
"If you ask quietly and get the truth, anybody who played at Green Bay under Vince Lombardi will tell you Willie Davis was the most intelligent player on those Packer teams.You think he ever has even been offered a job in football?
"I'm watching the World Series last night. Dave Parker is a great athlete, he's smart and he does everything. And all they talk about on TV is how big he is.
"It is institutionalized practically. All they say about Jim Biddy is he's a big ol' guy. Did they say that about Don Drysdale? Drysdale is bigger than Biddy, but all you ever heard about Drysdale is he sticks it in your ear and he moves pitches around.
"Black players are never thought about for leadership. You think a guy like Willie Stargell has learned something in 20 years? Oh, no. They say he's a natural athlete and he doesn't know anything. I maintain there is no such thing as a natural athlete. You get therre by working and thinking."
Bill Russell did not laugh this time.