I know the NBA home office will be thrilled and delighted if the Celtics and Lakers reach the Finals, something that is a very real possibility (the Lakers can knock the Spurs out tonight, the Celts can finish the Pistons tomorrow). If that happens, we’ll see plenty of highlights from the 80s, when both teams brought out the best (and occasionally the worst) in each other and generally elevated the game to spirited heights of competiveness. And we’ll also hear from the old cast of characters, including Bill Russell.
Here is a classic story from "Second Wind: Memoirs of an Opinonated Man," by Russell with the historian Taylor Branch (1979, Random House; currently out-of-print). It’s about Russell’s grandfather and his mule, Kate. Russell’s family was from Monroe, Louisiana and he lived down there until he was about ten (his family later moved to the Bay Area where Russell played junior high hoops with Frank Robinson, who in turn played baseball with Curt Flood and Vada Pinson). 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.