This part of the series on Second Wind Memoirs of an Opinionated Man by Bill Russell picks up where Part 4 left off. Bill discovers his talent for basketball for the first time at the age of 18 while on the California All Stars trip.
I was like a sponge on the whole trip, soaking up whatever I could learn from the other players. For the first time the game obsessed me. Whenever I was on the sidelines, in practice or in a game, I studied the moves of my teammates. Bill Treu in particular fascinated me. He was a Mormon, clean scrubbed, honest, friendly and our best player. In one game he scored fifty three points. Treu was the first player I'd ever seen who relied on ball handling. Most of the kids I'd known at McClymonds would take the ball and race at breakneck speed directly to the point at which they's take their jump shot or pass. Treu hardly ever went anywhere in a straight line; he was always cutting and weaving. His head and his eyes would scissor back and forth in a constant fake as he hesitated, switched h ands and changed direction in order to get open. He was the first player I'd ever seen who could spin repeatedly while dribbling and still control the ball - the way Earl Monroe would later play in the pros. On the bus I would talk with Treu for hours on end about how he'd developed each fake and spin. He loved talking about his moves, which were is proudest possessions. I looked for Treu to become a great player later at Brigham nUniversity, but I understand that the Mormon Church sent him on a two year mission overseas, after which he stayed out of competitive sports. Eural McKelvey, the only black player on the team other than myself, tried to make a science out of rebounding. He was the first player I ever heard talk about such refinements as which way the ball was likely to bounce from shots taken at certain spots on the court. He wanted to know everything, and he was always thinking. Also, he ran swiftly and gracefully, and threw up an accurate jump shot. Like Bill Treu, McKelvey talked to me endlessly about basketball. I kept peppering him with questions, and from the questions and from the way I was playing he knew that I was learning from him. Some players hoard their ideas like trade secrets, but Treu and McKelvey seemed to like helping other players. In Coach Swegle's bubbly atmosphere their unselfishness spread to the whole team. McKelvey has remained a friend every since. When Mister Charlie retired from the foundry at the age of sixty five, he started working in a fruit canning plant a few weeks every summer just to keep in shape. McKelvey, who is a foreman of the plant, kids Mister Charlie about pulling his share of the load, but he looks after him as if he were his own father. Within a week after the All Star tour began, something happened that opened my eyes and chilled my spine. I was sitting on the bench, watching Treu and McKelvey the way I always did. Every time one of them would make one of the moves I liked, I'd close my eyes just afterward and try to see the play in my mind. In other words, I'd try to create an instant replay on the inside of my eyelids. Usually I'd catch only part of a particular move the first time I tried this, I'd miss the head work or the way the ball was carried or maybe the sequence of steps. But the next time I saw the move I'd catch a little more of it, so that soon I could call up a complete picture of, say Bill Treu's spinning right handed layup from the left side of the basket. On this particular night I was working on replays of many plays including McKelvey's way of taking an offensive rebound and moving quickly to the hoop. It's a fairly simple play for any big man in basketball, but I didn't execute it well and McKelvey did. Since I had an accurate version of his technique in my head, I started playing with the image right there on the bench, running back the picture several times and each time inserting a part of me for McKelvey. Finally I saw myself making the whole move, and I ran this over and over too. When I went into the game, I grabbed and offensive rebound and put it in the basket just the way McKelvey did. It seemed natural, almost as if I were just stpping into a film and following the signs. When the imitation worked and the ball went in, I could barely contain myself. I was so elated I thought I'd float right out of the gym. Every time I'd tried to copy moves in the past, I'd dribbled the ball off my arm or committed some other goof. Now for the first time I had transferred something from my head to my body. It seemed so easy. My first dose of athletic confidence was coming to me when I was eighteen years old. The technique itself was not new to me. When I had spent so much of my free time in the Oakland Public Library, after my mother died, I'd check out reproductions of painting and take them home with me - prints of DaVinci and Michelangelo rolled up in a scroll and tucked under my arm to keep other kids from seeing what they were. I got enough kidding just for going to the library; if the guys in my neighborhood had discovered what was under my arm, they'd have teased me into the San Francisco Bay. Safely at home, I would unroll the prints and study them. Almost always I selected paintings of faces and scenes. I don't know where I'd gotten the ides, but I also thought if I could memorize paintings of magnificent buildings, it would help me become an architect. I wanted to conceive of a building in my mind and then make it a reality. Those paintings held me spellbound. I would study a Michelangelo for hours, trying to memorize each little detail, working on one section of the painting at a time. It took me weeks before I was satisfied that I could close my eyes and re-create anything resembling what I saw in the reproduction. Then I would psyche myself up for the acid test: drawing the painting from memory. I'd put the print away and start sketching, but the result always frustrated me. When I'd finished, the outline and the general shapes would resemble the painting closely, but the details would be cockeyed and jarring. It always looked as if Michelangelo had sent his work into the nursery for completion. Finally I decided that I had no gift. This failure - plus the fact that not a single student at McClymonds expected to go to college - sent my dream of being an architect into limbo.
Next part will continue Bill's discovery of the game of basketball and his talent for it.