The reflective rookie posed a direct question for the straight-shooting legend.
Joakim Noah raised his hand and asked Bill Russell if he felt underappreciated while accomplishing all that he did in racially polarized Boston — 11 N.B.A. championships in 13 remarkable years — at the dawn of and during the civil rights era.
Noah, the mixed-race progeny of French, Swedish and Cameroonian descent, son of the tennis champion Yannick, brought to Russell’s famously whiskered face a contented smile reflecting an appreciation for the depth of curiosity, for the opportunity to be engaged.
“Quite true,” Russell said. “But you know what? It was really irrelevant. My father always told me that the most important thing is what you think of yourself. He had an expression about there being all these little red wagons that get pulled around and that it’s got nothing to do with me.”
Who, then, better than Russell, in his gravelly voiced and informal, meditative manner, to lecture the freshly minted rookie class of 2007 about the wagon train of critics awaiting them — hauling around some legitimate grievances about the state of their sport but also, in too many cases, hurling familiar stereotypes and stones?
Ready to hold them to unmatchable standards — as in the case of the injured and absent Greg Oden, already anointed as the next Russell — or to modes of idealized behavior existing mainly in sanitized versions of bygone eras that were televised in black and white but are seldom remembered in shades of gray.
Think, for example, that N.B.A. pugilism began with the Bad Boy Pistons, or with Ron Artest rampaging into the waiter seats at the Palace of Auburn Hills?
“We had fights in All-Star Games,” Russell said, competitive pride on his sport coat sleeve matching the gift from Commissioner David Stern, a ring commemorating all 11 titles.
Think that the great Russell was above instigating a scuffle by explaining to an opponent, as he put it yesterday at the N.B.A.’s Rookie Transition Program at the Doral Arrowwood resort, “why they didn’t have a chance?”
“Nowadays, they call it trash talking,” Russell told the rookies. “But see, that’s from the suburbs. In the projects, we’re talking folks, about things that are pertinent.”
He got a few laughs, but pandering — particularly to the black players — was not his primary purpose. Not every rookie was African-American, or American, but the message was less about contrasting cultures, or the racial divide, than it was about keeping it real.
“I tell all the kids — rich, poor, black, white — that you must be your own counsel,” Russell said in an interview after his talk. “We understand that we don’t always want to do the right thing, but what they have to ask themselves is, ‘Am I willing to deal with the consequences?’ ”
In the final analysis, Russell told the rookies, more gratifying than working too hard to please the wagon pullers and ending up feeling like a puppet for the pundits, is “trying to honor yourself and your family.”
Always implicit in Russell-speak, of course, is that family is tantamount to team, in his case the Celtics, for whom he would have endured a million bigots in Boston.
Upon asking his question, Noah said he was surprised that Russell had not given specific examples of racism. “Not so much around the league,” he said, “but right in his own city, where he was a player, a coach, being a seven-foot black man.”
Actually, Russell dominated at 6-foot-9 — two inches shorter than Noah, in a distant, very different era, but not so long ago that Russell has seen a team, other than the 1980s Lakers of Magic and Kareem, that he believes his Celtics could not have beaten.
Some might have heard hubris in such conviction, but not Noah. He comes to the Chicago Bulls as a two-time N.C.A.A. champion at Florida, a player most willing to do windows, who said he already knew that Russell’s talk would be the overriding lesson of the four-day program that attempts to educate the rookies on topics ranging from gambling to felony situations to professionalism and etiquette.
Noah also came to understand why Russell doesn’t recount past cruelties — why give credence to them when he long ago rose to a higher existential plane, allowing only Russell to define Russell?
“When he was answering my question, I found it so applicable to my life, so real to me, especially the way I allowed some negative things that were being said last year — not in a racial sense, but about me as a player and my family — to get to me,” Noah said. “I could’ve listened to him speak for another hour and asked him so many more questions.”
When the session ended, when the others filed out for lunch, Joakim Noah headed straight for the man he called “the greatest winner of all time,” and squeezed in a few.