"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Knock ‘Em out the Box (Something to Think About)

I think that the Patriots will wipe the floor with the Giants in the Super Bowl in spite of the fact that New York has a shot to make it a real contest. But it would sure be something if the Giants ended the Patriots’ epic season, wouldn’t it? And I’m not a Giants fan, just a New Yorker. I mean, dag, even the Celtics are more than just a fluke.

Truth is, I never disliked the Pats or Celtics as a kid, even though I’ve always loathed the Red Sox. (Same fans pretty much, just different time of year. Makes a lot of sense, huh?) Morgan, Grogan,James, Tippett (the “other” 56)–all favorites. The 80s Celtics too. Liked ‘em better than Showtime. Nate Archibald was my first favorite player (mostly because I was short and his name was Tiny). Bird, McHale, the Big Chief. And now, I find it difficult to hate Tom Brady or Kevin Garnett, who has always been terrific, one of the very best things about the NBA.

Speaking of the Celts, have you ever read Bill Russell’s memoir “Second Wind: Memoirs of an Opinonated Man,” written with the historian Taylor Branch? Russell grew up in West Oakland, and I came across this book when I was writing Stepping Up, a biography of Curt Flood–who, incidentally, would have turned 70 last week. Rusell was four years older than Flood but played high school basketball with Frank Robinson. Anyhow, it is a good read, emotionally direct and tender–worth snatching up if you ever find it in a used bookshop.

One of my favorite stories is about Russell’s grandfather and his mule, Kate. Russell’s family was from Monroe, Louisiana and he actually lived down there until he was about ten. He called his father’s father, The Old Man. When Russell was four or five (1938-9), he followed his grandfather and Kate around one day:

I could tell that Kate and the Old Man understood each other. One day I was walking along with them when Kate decided to go off and stand in a ditch. Being an honest mule, she had a stubborn, mulish personality, and she stood there with this determined look on her face. It was as if Kate were saying, Okay, I got you now. We’re going to do this my way.” The Old Man did everything he could to get Kate back up on the road. I watched him talk to her, and push, pull, shove and kick—a tough job, because there must have been nine hundred pounds of mule there. The Old Man would get Kate’s front up on the raod and be cooing into her ear, but when he walked around to pull up her taile end, the front would sidle back into the ditch again—so he’d take a deep breath and start over. I was taking all this in, and I couldn’t believe that the Old Man didn’t lose his temper.

After a long ordeal, Kate finally wound up back on the road. The Old Man looked exhausted, and the mule must have taken some satisfaction from all the effort she’d cost him. She looked fresh and relaxed, standing there as warm and lazy as the country air. The Old Man leaned on Kate and rested there for a minute or two; then out of nowhere he hauled off and punched her with his bare fist. Wack, just once, right on the side of the neck. The thud was so loud that I must have jumped a foot. The mule gently swayed back and forth groggily; then her front legs buckled and she collapsed to her knees. Then the hindquarters slowly buckled and settled down too. Kate looked all bent and contorted, like a squatting camel, as she sat there with a vacant stare in her eyes. I was dumbstruck. Right in front of my eyes the Old Man had knocked out a mule with one punch.

He never said a word to me or to the mule. He just let Kate sit there for a minute, and then he grabbed her by the head and picked her up. “Okay, let’s go,” he said quietly, and we started off again as if nothing had happened.

That sight stuck in my mind so vividly that I learned a practical lesson from it. I got into very few fights when I played for the Celtics, but every single one of them was in the last quarter, after the game was decided. You have to choose when to fight, and that is the time. The Old Man knew he’d have been in big trouble if he’d knocked that mule down in the ditch, so he waited until it didn’t cost him anything. Then he relieved his frustration and gave Kate something to think about.

Eat your heart out, Mongo.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver