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Bill Russell’s Words Were Worth the Wait

In the book, Russell wrote that he and Auerbach had seldom socialized or delved into personal or social issues. They were instead bound by basketball, by team, which also was, in effect, family. The patriarch was stubborn, set in his ways, Russell said. Russell’s own willful ways, shaped by a place in Boston and in America which Auerbach could never fully understand, formed the basis of their mutual respect.

“We were so alike that way,” said Russell, who often made the point that he played for the Celtics, not Boston. But the team’s success always came first.

That day in Manhattan, Russell shared some final coaching he’d gotten during his last visit with Auerbach, just as he took his leave. “Listen, Russ, this is something important,” Auerbach told him. “When you get old, don’t fall. Because that’s the start of the end. So remember: Don’t fall!”

Russell, already 75, obviously knew that frailty would eventually visit him, too. Near the end of our interview, he admitted that he’d written the book because, “I also have to be mindful of my own mortality.”

Those words barely spoken, he cut loose one of his trademark boisterous cackles.

Athletic greatness fades. Team dynasties fold. But Bill Russell’s presence, deep into old age, didn’t so much as flicker. While the contemporary best-ever debate is laser focused on Air Jordan versus King James, Russell’s contextualization of the argument only required flashing the ring he wore that 2007 day at the rookie transition program — a gift from the N.B.A. commissioner at the time, David Stern, commemorating all 11 of Russell’s titles.

That remains the truest measure of superstar affirmation within a team sport. It’s also the one all but guaranteed never to fall.

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