My hero

[I wrote the piece below last week, right after hearing about the death of Bill Russell. It took all week to find the archival stuff to include for illustrations. Still reading about Russell and still learning about his impact in American life in the 2nd half of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. An amazing man…]

My hero

My brother is 8 years older than me. When we were growing up in the suburbs of Boston, our family had no car. But we did have a garage and driveway. On the front of the garage my father had built a regulation-sized backboard for my brother’s basketball hoop. I was too small to play with him and his friends, but they put a lower hoop on a tree beside the driveway so I could be out there shooting hoops like my big brother. 

And I was 6 years old in the 1963/64 school year when I drew a picture of my hero – Bill Russell -playing basketball.

Bill Russell & Wilt Chamberlain

I won first prize in the Archdiocese Art Fair. (many people won first prizes, I see from the program…) The award ceremony was at Boston College and I remember sitting next to a girl named Casey Jones. And not understanding why she wasn’t K.C. Jones, like Russell’s teammate. 

May 1964
May 1964

One more from that event –

PF at Boston College, May 1964. Before the beard…

[the drawing of Russell above is not the one from that event, but same timeframe.]

I knew the Celtics scene backwards and forwards when I was young – and it’s due to my brother and father. We got two or sometimes three newspapers a day at home. My brother used to cut out every article about the Celtics’ games, including the box score and paste them into scrapbooks. I remember the Boston Globe then used to run cartoons or caricatures about the players and I used to copy them whenever it was a Celtic player. I think at some point I used to help with the clippings. 

from the web

[the photo above I got from the web, didn’t see a credit for the photographer, which is a shame. It’s an amazing shot.]

We went to the games from time to time at the old Boston Garden. I remember once when I was really small, we sat down near the front row. And the next time we went, we were up higher, with a better vantage point. I don’t remember this except from the telling of it – but someone tried to trade seats with my father by telling him “wouldn’t the kid like to sit down close to the players?” And I apparently said that no, we could see better up here. Something I’m sure I was parroting from my brother and father. My uncle Bob might have been with us then too. 

Russell was my absolute hero, 6 was my favorite number. I even remember wanting a goatee because of him. (never had one once it was within my reach). I watched the games all through the 1960s – he retired after the 1969 season, the year I turned 12. 

Russell & Wilt

It was easy for a young kid to be taken with those Celtics teams. They just about always won – 11 championships in 13 years. The only common theme through that whole time was Russell. Back then I read everything I could find about him, but couldn’t digest it all. 

So I guess if a kid’s going to have a hero, Russell would be a good choice. I wish I could say it was because of his stance on civil rights. He marched with King, sat down front for the “I have a dream” speech. He went to Mississippi right after Medgar Evers’ death to run a basketball camp for black & white kids, – these are just snippets of his overall defiance in the face of American racism. A symbol of his position is that he was a pallbearer for Jackie Robinson. But I was too young then to know that scene. All I knew was his basketball playing and the fact that even at my young age, I could see that Russ was “cool.” He was indeed bigger than life. A remarkable man in many respects. 

Over the past few years I’ve read the news about one after another of these players  having died. And they were household names for us. K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, John Havlicek – all died in the past few years. Now Russell. These names and youtube clips bring a flood of memories that all sorta slide around each other.

Through it all, I think every time of my brother. So if Russell is/was my larger-than-life hero, my brother is another kind of hero. He and I are both much older than our father ever got to be, but he reminds me of our father, Moe. The best father and husband you can be. First person I thought of when I heard about Russell. SRF, thanks for pointing the way. 


PS: I have no photos of him and me playing basketball, we rarely did together. Baseball though was something different. And halfball still something else. This photo below is from 1968, I was not yet 11 years old. The only family vacation I ever went on – all the way to Plymouth from Weymouth (about 30 miles). Me at bat, Steve catching. Shortly after this photo, I misjudged a fly ball and famously got knocked unconscious.

PF at bat, SRF catching

When I got married in 2003 my sister threw a big party for us the day after the wedding. I don’t dance, don’t drink and I hate cake. So wedding parties are not my bag. Ours was different. Steve & I got a halfball game going out in the front yard while other people did whatever it is that people do at weddings.

PF pitching

A broomstick and these days tennis balls cut in half. What more do you need?

SRF at bat

UPDATE: I meant to post this youtube video, the best one I’ve seen on Russell this week. It’s worth your ten minutes.

26 thoughts on “My hero

  1. Well done. The half ball game reminds me of playing hose ball in the 1940’s in Philly. We broke a window once and a few kids got hurt when the 4 inch piece of hose hit them.

  2. Thank you Peter. What a wonderful family story you shared with us. I am not from Boston, but I remember well the glory days of the Celtics with the class act player he was, Bill Russell. Well done.
    Michael O’Brien

  3. Thanks for sharing.

    The game you referenced was a Sunday afternoon playoff game. You and I went alone. Ma almost killed me when we got home. To save $ you and I hitchhiked home from Quincy.

    To say I remind you of Moe The Jet is high praise indeed.

  4. Peter, always enjoy your cabinetmaking blogs and this one brought back memories. A fine tribute to #6.

    We went to the Celtics and Cincinnati Royals game played at U of Maryland Cole Field House. Wow! Bob Cousy particularly impressed me with his ball handling. I guess I was more of a backcourt player.

    From the Sports Team History webpage:

    In 1960, the team was able to land local superstar Oscar Robertson. Robertson led a team that included Twyman, Wayne Embry, Bob Boozer, Bucky Bockhorn, Tom Hawkins, and Adrian Smith over the next three seasons. The Royals reversed their fortunes with Robertson and rose to title contender. An ownership dispute in early 1963 scuttled the team’s playoff chances when new owner Louis Jacobs booked a circus for Cincinnati Gardens for the week of the playoff series versus the champion Boston Celtics. The Royals’ home games were at Xavier University’s home Schmidt Field House.

  5. When I lived in Albany for 25 years, one night Russell gave a talk to the Albany area boys and girls club that was broadcast on public access channel. He was a very interesting man. He said the Boy’s Club where he grew up helped make him into the person he became. He and Wilt were friendly off the court and Wilt would go to the Russell house for Thanksgiving some years. I am 10 years older than you and I was really into basketball by 7th grade. I remember Celtics well and all the old NBA teams from that time. There weren’t so many and it was easy to remember a lot of the players from every team.

    Lee Winslow ________________________________

  6. Thank You Peter, Being a boy born in 1952 in Maine, I can relate to Bill Russell being a hero if you loved the game of basketball in the 60’s. Working as a boilermaker , home base being Quincy, I was schooled on the game of “Half ball” and cutting a rubber ball in half by my fellow workers from the south shore.Hearing of Russell’s death I dug out some old Scrap books and went down that same memory lane.How lucky I was to grow up in that era.Thanks for putting your thoughts on paper to share, much appreciated, AG

  7. Thanks, Peter—marvelous recollections of someone worth remembering and of another time. My dad also subscribed to two newspapers and read 1-2 more every day in those pre-instantnet days. For us it was the Yanks, keeping up with Billy Martin’s latest antics and doping out the pitching rotation 10 days ahead. Another world it seems. Your drawing’s really good though—definitely deserved the ribbon!!

    Here’s an interview Terry Gross did with Russell, worth listening if you haven’t already heard it:

    Take care,


  8. Great story. Very heart warming. We need more stories and memories like these in these chaotic times.
    Keep safe and well.

  9. caption for photo from the New Yorker article:

    Russell playing for the Boston Celtics against the L.A. Lakers in 1963. Photograph by Walter Iooss Jr. / Getty

    and looss is spelled with a lower case I checked.

  10. My grandfather (1930s), father (56-60), and I (86-90) went to USF. In fact, I teach there as an adjunct mostly as a way to give back to the school because I am grateful for the solid education they provided me. Growing up, long before I went to USF, I had heard about USF basketball and Bill Russel and his accomplishments. Was sad to hear of his passing. My 10 year old has been on campus a bunch of times with me when I’ve taught. Fingers crossed she wants to go there as well.

    There is also a wonderful story about USF football team of that era. Their season was good enough for playoffs. They had an African American player on the team. Because of the color of their skin that player was somehow going to be treated differently in the away games (sorry, I don’t recall the specifics). As such, the USF football team stood behind that player and refused to compete. It’s a good story worth digging into.

  11. Love when you put pen to paper with memories such as these. Stick ball and basketball, neither of which I was very good at, are wonderful memories of Dad and of our childhood. We were so very lucky! Our brother is certainly very much like our dad, and these memories will be part of his grandkids memories,too!

  12. Memories are priceless. Thank you for sharing.

    Bill Russell was truly a man of many parts.

    Carl R. Johnson

    Braintree, MA

  13. Great story Peter. Thanks for posting it, along with your early childhood photos. I grew up in Indiana, and back in the 50s HS basketball was a big deal. Oscar Robertson was the local hero. He played for Crispus Attacks they were the state champs a couple of times in the mid 50s. Once we got a television the Celtics and Bill Russell became the team and players we all rooted for.

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