Monday, February 25, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt three)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

Russell still needed a means of self-expression, and he ultimately found it in basketball. But that discovery never occurred during high school. He played the sport, but without distinction, and only by the good graces of a stern, thickset, buzz-cut white man named George Powles. With a knack for fostering children’s self-esteem, Powles coached sandlot and semipro baseball teams, supervised youth leagues, and invited gaggles of kids to raid his wife’s refrigerator. He coached an astounding number of future professional athletes, including baseball major leaguers Vada Pinson, Billy Martin, and Joe Morgan, professional football players Ollie Matson and John Brodie, and Bobby Woods of the Harlem Magicians. Powles also coached three extraordinary barrier-breakers: Frank Robinson, the first black manager in the Major Leagues; Curt Flood, who challenged baseball’s reserve clause; and Bill Russell.

Powles had been Russell’s junior high homeroom instructor, and he transferred to McClymonds when Russell was in tenth grade. Despite no basketball experience, Powles coached the junior varsity. He found a place for Russell on the end of the bench. The sixteenth player on a squad of fifteen, Russell shared a uniform with the second-worst player. “We want Russell!” fans would chant at the end of blowouts, only to hoot and jeer at his awkward efforts.

Yet Powles recognized something in Russell—maybe potential, maybe desperation. He mentored the benchwarmer, insisting that Russell would improve. Powles urged team members to challenge Russell in practice, stirring Russell’s competitive juices. Powles even lent him two dollars to join the Boys Club and play pickup games. Russell remained so awkward that senior members of the Boys Club excluded him. The 6’2” high schooler thus endured the humiliation of playing with younger children.

Powles got promoted to varsity coach before Russell’s junior year. He knew little about basketball fundamentals or strategy, so he coached a fast, free-flowing style that exploited his players’ creativity and athleticism. The players appreciated his trust, care, and honesty about the racial politics of sport. “You’ve got an all-Negro team here,” he told them. “If another team has a fight, it will be called a melee. If you get into a fight, it’s a riot.” The players learned not only self-discipline, but also that black athletes lived by higher standards. Their on-court actions had off-court implications.

Meanwhile, Powles kept an eye on his pet project. Russell had sprouted four inches in one year, and though his height later paid dividends, it now made him even clumsier. Powles encouraged Russell to believe in himself. He also lent an unorthodox coaching tip, suggesting that Russell improve his coordination by playing table tennis. The new jayvee coach cut him, but Powles had him practice with the varsity team. That promotion validated the sensitive young man. “The very fact that I made the high-school squad changed my whole outlook on life,” he reflected. Joining a team delivered a sense of belonging.

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