Hall of Famer Bill Russell’s appearance on “Feherty” Monday night on Golf Channel is must-see TV — even if you’re Lakers fan.
“Simply one of the finest men I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet” is how the host of tonight’s show describes the legendary 11-time NBA champ, who sits down for a candid, moving, and thoroughly engrossing interview about his experiences with racism, his relationship with Red Auerbach, his work as a mentor to at-risk children, and golf.
The tall lefty, who, at a fit and trim 77, looks as if he could still block a few shots, even shows off some of his short- game prowess. (We won’t tell you who wins the $20 chipping contest between the five-time NBA MVP and the five-time European Tour winner on the Seattle course where Russell plays five days a week.)
About his skills on the links, Russell says that getting his handicap down to single digits was “the worst thing that ever happened to me.
“When you get to a six or a seven handicap, you try to improve,” explains Russell, who once played to a seven. “You can’t enjoy the game….You bogey the first hole, your whole day is ruined.”
The six-foot, 10-inch retired center took up the game later in life, although his first set of clubs — a perk for making the all-star team in his second year in the league — was for a right-handed player. A civil rights activist who was the NBA’s first black head coach and used his fame to fight racism, Russell now engages in a recreation that Feherty notes is “one of the last exclusionary sports.”
When he’s on the course, however, it’s all about “playing golf,” says the 12-time all-star. “Not a social agenda, whatsoever.”
Coaching disadvantaged kids remains one of Russell’s passions. Last year, the recipient of the 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom invited Haney Project graduate Charles Barkley, current Celtics guard Ray Allen (a reputed low single-digit handicapper), and a host of other sports greats to tee it up in the inaugural Mentor’s Champions Challenge. Russell and his business partners envision the celebrity-amateur competition that benefits the National Mentoring Partnership becoming the east coast version of the old, luminary-heavy Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach.
On tonight’s show, Russell shares with Feherty some of the wisdom imparted by his own mentor, the fabled Auerbach, by most measures the best coach in professional sports history. After a long visit toward the end of Auerbach’s life (he died in 2006), Red, who needed a walker by that time, stopped his former player as he was about to leave his home. “When you get old,” Russell says Auerbach cautioned him, “don’t fall.”
For sure, Russell’s not above a bit of trash talking with one of the best who ever taunted an opponent. After Michael Jordan won a championship, the 2009 Presidents Cup assistant boasted that his Chicago Bulls were “gonna go after your record,” Russell recalls about their chit chat during a golf match. “I said, ‘which one? You know we won 11 of them but we won eight straight.
“I don’t think you’ll live long enough to get any one of those,” says Russell, who punctuates much of his time with Feherty with his patented, infectious laugh.
In the interest of full disclosure, this viewer is a life-long Celtics fan who’s old enough to have had the distinct pleasure and honor of watching Russell make mincemeat of Wilt Chamberlain and other rivals. But I’m willing to bet you don’t have to be a diehard follower of the Green to agree with Feherty when he tells Russell that it’s been “amazing meeting you and a real privilege to spend this…time with you.”
“Feherty” is on Golf Channel, Monday at 10 p.m. (EST).