- King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution
Bill Russell, the “greatest winner in basketball history,” has authored four or five autobiographies or versions thereof but has been the subject of no scholarly researched and presented biography until this volume. Goudsouzian has seemingly read every book, newspaper article, archival document, and magazine piece on or by Bill Russell, as well as hundreds of other pieces surrounding the game and the era in which Russell played. The author also interviewed dozens of relatives, former teammates, opponents, friends, and acquaintances to produce a book that is almost as personal as those authored by Russell himself. At times, it is more so. There are ninety pages of footnotes and thirty-eight pages of bibliography.
One shortcoming of all of Russell’s books is the absence of game descriptions, which Russell acknowledges, seeing those things as relatively unimportant in retrospect. They may be to him, but to historians, sports enthusiasts, and general readers that is hardly the case. Goudsouzian makes up for that with detailed highlights of important games and battles against challenging opponents such as Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit, Willis Reed, Dolph Schayes, and Bill Bradley.
As noted, the research in this book is overwhelmingly impressive, as is the way the author cross-references interview statements against the printed, established facts, illustrating why oral history is so difficult to rely upon for more than anecdotal color. Even Russell misremembers facts in his biographies, which Goudsouzian corrects and clarifies. At times, there are some questionable sources such as William Mokray’s scrapbooks, in which the newspaper articles are often left with no citations, but Goudsouzian tries to buttress most of his observations or assertions with multiple sources. Amazingly, there are a few sources NOT used that surprised, most notably Bruce Jenkins’ biography of Pete Newell, that provides better perspectives on Russell’s college coach, Phil Woolpert, and Woolpert’s mentor, Jimmy Needles.
There are some unsubstantiated statements that Goudsouzian accepts from other sources without question, and this is surprising, considering his thoroughness. For example, he states that Bill Spivey shaved points in 1951 (p. 29), but in a drawn out court case in which Spivey sued the NBA, no such assertion was proven, despite the fact that Spivey settled the case for a relatively small award from the NBA. One obvious gaffe is the claim that the Chicago Stags of the BAA had six African-American players in 1948 (p. 90), when, in fact it was the NBL’s Chicago Studebakers of 1942–1943. The BAA never had an African-American player, and this resistance carried, initially, into the NBA. [End Page 147]
These are, admittedly, minor peccadilloes in a book filled with treasures such as detailed game descriptions, insightful analyses of the game of basketball, and marvelous observations on the era, including discussions of sports, films, the Civil Rights movement and politics. Even the photographs illustrate Goudsouzian’s relentless pursuit through archives as they are drawn from the Oakland Public Library, the University of San Francisco Archives, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, the Boston Public Library, and the Los Angeles Public Library.
Gudsouzian eschews one area in this study and that is Russell’s personal and family relationships. What he offers is relatively brief, ignoring affairs that Russell himself details, but which the author must feel adds little to an understanding of Russell’s life. The omission is not damaging, simply curious. It cannot detract from the depth and power of this excellent book, one that will be useful to scholars and enjoyed by general readers.