How Bill Russell learned the spirit of Judaism

The Boston Celtics star felt an affinity with coach Red Auerbach who faced prejudice on the streets of Brooklyn.

By Benjamin Ivry, The Forward

Bill Russell, the legendary Boston Celtics center who died July 31 at age 88, identified his professional accomplishments as cohering with the inner qualities of his Brooklyn-born Jewish coach, Red Auerbach.

Both Russell and Auerbach were feared for their furious will to win. For both, growing up as members of minority groups made them resolve never to accept victimhood or be hindered in their goals. Russell noted in a memoir that during his first year with the Celtics, Auerbach informed him: “It was tougher than hell growing up in Williamsburg. There was a lot of prejudice against Jews. I’m a Jew.”

Russell, whose acquaintance with Jews had been limited in his native Louisiana and as a University of San Francisco undergraduate, asked his coach to define Judaism (“What is a Jew? Is it a religion? Is it a culture? A tribe?”) Auerbach’s response was concise: “Russell. A Jew is a Jew!”

Although they remained friends for decades, Auerbach never offered any further explanation on the subject. Sometimes, when Auerbach was screaming at referees, as was his wont, Russell would wander by and mutter to lighten the mood: “Auerbach. A Jew is a Jew!”

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Only once did Auerbach acknowledge Russell’s comment by winking at his star player, before returning to yelling at the referees. In exchange, Auerbach would tease Russell, saying that his wife considered the latter a “nice young man,” adding: “You sure fooled her!” Russell termed this type of joke “Red’s usual Brooklyn-Jewish needle — his way of expressing friendliness.”

Earlier, in 1957, Auerbach announced that another African American player had been drafted by the Celtics and assumed Russell would know the newcomer. To which Russell joked: “Listen, Red. I don’t know all of them!”

Although Russell was always highly alert to race-related prejudice, he tolerated Auerbach’s occasional use of the term from “schvartze” because he said he understood that his coach trusted him implicitly and esteemed him without an iota of patronization or paternalistic posing. While in some instances Auerbach appeared slow to appreciate the import of racial prejudice which he encountered, Russell found the coach open-minded, willing to learn and always respectful.

Russell also took it good-humoredly when Auerbach called him a Goyishe kop.” But Russell was not so tolerant about potential slights from other Jewish basketball personnel. Indeed, before Russell signed with the Celtics, he rejected an offer to join the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition basketball squad after team owner Abe Saperstein, of Polish Jewish origin, would only negotiate with his college coach rather than speak to Russell personally.

Nor was Russell enamored of all Jews in basketball. Following Auerbach’s example, he would taunt veteran Jewish referee Mendy Rudolph, asking if he would like a recommendation for a good optometrist.

Russell and Auerbach had parallel approaches to the game, with Russell scrupulously analyzing playing styles of other athletes, while Auerbach preferred to study weaknesses of referees before each game. Irritating and distracting the opposition were key elements of their shared performance strategy.

Defining his friendship with Auerbach in his memoir, Russell intriguingly compared it to E = mc2, Albert Einstein’s formula for mass–energy equivalence in which complex equations were condensed by Einstein to a brief formula. Likewise, the labyrinthine personalities of Russell and Auerbach added up to a friendship despite their own intricately individual approaches to life and sport.

Part of the equation was speaking little, and scarcely ever about subjects not immediately concerned with the game. As Russell put it, “I didn’t know if [Auerbach] went to synagogue, and he didn’t know if I went to church.”