Russell is careful to tell us that it's not friendship, it's a different kind of team relationship that made his team's work special. The relationship, more than any individual triumph, gave him his greatest moments in the sport: "Every so often a Celtic game heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game," he wrote, "and would be magical. The feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked bout it when I was playing. When it happened I could feel my play rise to a new level . . . It would surround not only me and the other Celtics but also the players on the other team, and even the referees . . . At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened. The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet I wouldn't feel competitive, which is a miracle in itself . . . The game would move so fast that every fake, cut, and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing would surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken . . . To me, the key was that both team had to be playing at their peaks, and they had to be competitive . . . "Sports can elevate our very lives, lifting us above the hum drum routine of our lives. Speaking as a man, I know I need that.
But team sports also make us aware that our greatest achievements are not as individuals, but as part of a team, making those around us better as well. More from Bill Russell in the same book:
"By design and by talent," wrote basketball player Bill Russell of his team [the hated] Boston Celtics, "[we] were a team of specialists , and like a team of specialists in any field, our performance depended both on individual excellence and on how well we worked together. Non of us had to strain to understand that we had to complement each other's specialities; it was simply a fact, and we all tired to figure out ways to make our combinations more effective..."We realize that our role is important even if not visible and that our most important role is to learn to work together with our team mates achieve our mission of winning the game.
Participation in team sports also undermines racism, no small achievement. When I worked at U.S. Strategic Command years ago, we heard one of these professional racism lectures tell us what a bunch of racists we tended to be. He was making his pitch pretty reasonably until he ventured out on this limb, telling us that if he went out on the basketball courts at the massive gym (converted from an aircraft manufacturing plant) at Offutt AFB, he would see segregated basketball games. I knew then what an out of touch moron he actually was, because our lunch leagues were as integrated a group of teams as you could find in America. Our loyalty was to our team not our race; we just wanted to win.
Finally, team sports reinforces the sportsmanship that is at the heart of Americans. During the game we play hard, but by the rules. And we voluntarily play by the rules, not because the referee will blow the whistle, in the pick up game, there is no ref. But because we want our victory to be free of taint, because it is just the right thing to do. Once the final whistle blows, we can shake hands on a game well played and walk away, without any animosity in our hearts, the very model of Christian attitude. I think this last bit has been lost in professional and college sports. A team may win on an obvious fifth down in football, players flop to draw fouls, animosity by fans continues after the game. Americans could improve their sportsmanship, I believe. But sports are still a great crucible in which to forge character.