On his hands, he wears rings from his first NBA championship and his last one. There are not enough fingers to accommodate the other nine. In 1956-57, he won an NCAA championship, an Olympic gold medal and that first NBA title, the start of 11 in 13 years.
No wonder he cackles.
His grandson once asked him if he was as good as Michael Jordan. A table full of family began laughing. "I laughed harder than anyone else," Russell said, "and got up from the table and immediately took him out of my will."
And then he cackled again.
Jordan, remember, had no one at his level, no one to truly challenge his domination of the game. Russell, on the other hand, had Wilt Chamberlain.
Before Shaq and Alonzo, before Kareem and Akeem, there was Russell and Chamberlain or, as they addressed each other later in life, Felton (Russell's middle name) and Norman (Chamberlain's middle name).
Russell and the Boston Celtics beat Chamberlain's teams twice in championship series and five times in conference finals. Three times, a series was decided by a seventh game that Boston won by one or two points.
"It wasn't a rivalry," Russell said. "It was a competition. In a rivalry, the loser is vanquished. In a competition, both sides win."
Russell recalled the first time he encountered Chamberlain, Nov. 7, 1959, at Boston Garden, the fourth game of Wilt's NBA career.
"I'd been getting information; what works, what doesn't against him," Russell said. "No matter how prepared you are, you're not prepared. I decided I'm not going to look up at him."
The centers were introduced and lined up for the opening tap, Russell, looking straight ahead, found himself staring right into the middle of Chamberlain's abundant chest.
"I'm not going to look up," he said. "That's not going to work. So I looked. He's at least 7-foot-3 with shoulders this wide and I knew he was skilled. This specimen with basketball skills and the fastest guy on the team. What are you going to do with this?
"You've got to show up. I worked myself into preparing. We played. I got more rebounds (35). He got more points (30). We won (115-106). That's great, except for one thing. I was so tired I was no good for the rest of the week and we've got three more games.
"I thought I can't do this to my team. I decided at what level I should play and played at that level. Do what I do every night, no matter who I play. The next time I thought about what I had to do for my team to win."
In 142 games against each other, Chamberlain outscored Russell 28.7 to 14.5 and outrebounded him 28.7 to 23.7. But Russell's teams came out ahead 85-57.
Russell was all about winning, and he emphasizes that philosophy in his new book "Russell Rules Lessons on Leadership From the Twentieth Century's Greatest Winner."
In it, he talks about the ability to adjust and listen.
"You can't bring in a player and then try to change him," Russell said. "You need a versatile system with a place in there for every type of player. Bob Cousy ran the best fastbreak ever. In 1963, he retired. K.C. Jones is now our point guard, a completely different player. But we still won. And easier.
"We took what he did and made it part of our game. The rest of the players adjusted to play with K.C. Tom Heinsohn used to benefit from a lot of Cousy's passes. Cousy leaves. K.C. runs a different game. Is Heinsohn going to quit? No. He's got to fit in. He was versatile enough to adjust. Within a company, the same rules apply. You've got to listen to each other."
And that means really listen.
In the book, Russell recalls his freshman year at the University of San Francisco when an upperclassman asked his name. "My name is William," Russell replied.
The upperclassman preferred a less-flattering nickname. Russell suggested he might not want to use it. "If you do," he told the other student, "I'm going to whack you."
Sure enough, a half-hour later the other student encountered Russell and used the nickname. And just as surely, Russell whacked him.
"Why'd you do that?" the other student asked.
Russell's answer was simple.
"Weren't you listening to me?" he asked.
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