A few months ago I was in the book shop at the Central Station in Washington DC and happened upon a book by Bill Russell in the remainder bin. It was marked down from $24.99 to $4.99, so I bought it. It was entitled “Red and Me: My Coach, my lifelong friend”. I only recently picked it up to read and without fail, every thirty pages I was forced to exclaim to my wife how horrible a sports book it was with statements like “Now he's claiming to teach an 80-year old Auerbach about basketball from the stands!” or “I can see why it was in the remainder bin” or, less tactfully “What complete and utter BULL SHIT”. Yeah, I was yelling by the end of the sentence.
An insight into a particularly successful coach/player relationship? I think not. It is only 180-odd pages of drivel by a man whose ego simply knows no limits. When many people think back on the age-old “Wilt or Russell” debate, Chamberlain's ability to reel off his statistics and accomplishments has usually marked him the more egotistical of the pair. Russ, however, simply put it as “Eleven rings, ten fingers”. That Wilt only won twice – on mostly inferior teams – was the burden he had to lug about and as such in the “Who's better, who's best” game he had to rely on his extraordinary personal achievements. Russell has always been seen as the less-outspoken and less crass of the pair.
Until now. Red and Me was less about Red and more about Me. It was undoubtedly the most arrogant, selfish, egotistical and self-gratifying sports book I've ever had the misfortune to read and without question ranks at the bottom of the pile. And I've read Dean Jones: One day Magic, Punter: The first Tests of a Champion and the immortally bad Second Coming where Sam Smith attempts to revisit the success he had with The Jordan Rules but with only a modicum of enthusiasm. The point is, I've read some rubbish in my time but never have I read a sports book I enjoyed less.
These are not the recollections of a coach/player relationship and what made it so successful, more an attempted apologetic at how good Bill Russell was as a player. For several years during and after the careers of Wilt and Russell – I hate bringing Wilt's name into this but their careers will always be inextricably linked – Russell always said the Celtics triumphed most often because they had the better teams, which was for the large part true. Now he appears to be coming out saying that his teammates weren't nearly as good as history has made them out, and that all the glory for their championship years should go to him, simply because he was that good. I get the feeling now there is a swell of posthumous support for Chamberlain's case as greater and this is Russell trying to tell everyone that he was the best ever in a very gentle sense. He fails horribly in this.
Throughout the book, as he dwells on his family history, his relationships with his coaches and his experience Russell says “It is better to understand than to be understood” and lets on that this is his personal philosophy, the mantra he's led his life by. What twaddle! It may very well be true, but when he follows it immediately with a “Why do the citizens of Boston hate me?” soliloquy after purporting to understand them it rings very false indeed. He then uses the “... than to be understood” as an excuse to do just as he wants in life and be excused for it, no matter what the consequences on those around him. This makes him look a very sad, extremely angry and ultimately exceedingly lonely man.
Russell has a reputation for being a little spiky, perhaps hard to get to know. He often has refused to sign autographs for young fans, backing it up with statements like “Young children should ask their teacher for their autograph”. Within 30 pages he shoots that argument in the foot automatically and irrevocably by stating that he learnt nothing from his coaches at the University of San Francisco or from Auerbach during their ten years together. Indeed he then says he never respected any coaches he'd had except Red Auerbach, and the reason he held Red in such esteem was that he didn't try to get Russell to play according to team rules but changed the team rules to what was best for the Big Fella. He then says he knew everything about basketball before comin into the NBA as a 22-year old. According to Bill, Red identified early his talent and then essentially gave him carté blanche to do as he pleased.
No-one can ever argue with the record of the Boston Celtics during the 1950s and 1960s. I would have said “No-one can ever argue with Bill Russell's record ...” except this book has engendered such a dislike of the man in me that I now simply refuse to acknowledge him out of the Celtics team. That this man, such an icon of the sporting world, the first black coach in any pro sport comes out and says “I liked Red Auerbach because he let me do things the way I wanted”. No-one can dispute the results of this theory, so perhaps Auerbach was every bit the coach we now think of him as. To effectively get a player with a chip on his shoulder the size of Russell's to suit up and play hard every game ensures Red's reputation as one of the greats but more than that, Red and Me places Bill Russell inelegantly balancing at the top of Sporting Hall of Fame for Complete Dicks.
So to sum up: Red and Me: My Coach, my lifelong friend – 0 stars.
Don't even buy it for your worst enemy.