by Alex Nuti-de Biasi
BRADFORD–In late March 1965, Bill Russell was at the peak of his playing career.
The Boston Celtics had won six straight NBA championships and they were a good bet for a seventh. Russell, who died on July 31 at the age of 88, had just led the Celtics to a 62-18 regular season record. Scooping up his fifth career MVP award, he led the league in rebounding and minutes played.
A few months earlier, the legendary Boston Celtics center scored his 10,000th career point on a first-quarter dunk in front of the home fans at the Boston Garden. Russell finished the regular season like a man on a mission averaging 20 points and 33 rebounds per game over the final five games of the season, according to online statistics repository Basketball Reference.
Earning a first round bye, Russell, Sam Jones, John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, coach Red Auerbach and the rest of the Celtics waited to find out whether they would face Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers or Oscar Robertson and the Cincinnati Royals in the Eastern Conference Finals. Up 1-0 in the best of seven series, the Sixers hosted game 2 of the series on Friday, March 26.
So what better time for Russell to take in springtime in northern New England? After wrapping up Friday practice, the 6’10”, 30-year-old black Oakland, California native made a quick trip to take in predominantly white and definitely tiny Bradford, Vermont with a population at the time of around 1,600 people.
After wrapping up Friday practice, Russell drove up to Bradford as the invited guest of the local Lions Club at a season-end banquet feting the Bradford Academy boys basketball team and cheerleaders. The Admirals had just finished a run to the state finals where they fell to Woodstock.
Russell ‘charmed’ a gathering of 200 at the Bradford Congregational Church with his humor and his earnestness, according to an account in the April 1, 1965 United Opinion.
He made the trip despite threatening weather that made driving conditions challenging. He asked his wife not to join him.
“We don’t want the children to be orphans,” he told the audience.
Russell delivered his remarks after a highlight reel from the Admirals’ semifinal win over Sacred Heart of Newport was shown. Co-captains Steve Munson and Marshall Blake delivered commentary.
As astonishing as it may seem today, it was not unusual for a Celtic to visit Bradford in those days to speak to student-athletes, said Steve Munson, who now lives in California.
Standout Bill Sharman spoke at a similar banquet in 1959. Heinsohn spoke at one in 1967. Basketball clinics and camps featuring Celtics were a regular occurrence throughout the region.
“Somehow, Dad had contacts down there,” Robert Munson, Steve’s younger brother, said in a brief telephone interview on Monday.
Dr. Philip Munson grew up in Gardiner, Massachusetts. He chaired the Lions Club sports committee at the time of the 1965 banquet. Still, he only filled in at the last second to serve as toastmaster for the evening’s festivities. A fact that was not lost on Russell.
“I’ve sat beside some nervous people in my time, but never anyone like this Doc Munson,” Russell said.
Fifty-seven years later, Russell’s humor still resonates.
“I’ll never forget that laugh,” said Steve. “He was quite a character.”
Bob met Russell even before that late March night in Bradford. He attended a basketball camp in Maine where he obtained a rare autograph. Russell did not like handing those out.
The all-star left a distinct impression. Bob said he thought he might have encouraged his father to get Russell to speak at the dinner.
“He would do anything for kids,” Bob said. “He was truly one kids could look up to and idolize.”
On March 26, 1965, more than 350 miles away in Philadelphia, the 76ers and the Royals battled it out in a suspenseful game 2 of the first round. Chamberlain finished with a triple-double scoring 30, pulling down 15 rebounds, and dishing out 10 assists. But Robertson dropped 40 for the Royals as the visitors edged the hosts 121-120 to even the series.
Russell’s attention, however, was focused on some young people in Bradford.
“You know, it’s an interesting fact that we take our children at their most impressionable age and place them in the hands of complete strangers–their coaches and their teachers– and say, ‘Here they are. Grow them up,’” he said at the banquet.
Russell’s accomplishments off the court were just as notable as those on the court. After his playing career, he became a trailblazing coach and prominent Civil Rights advocate.
He told the student-athletes in Bradford to put sports in perspective.
“The game can’t be your whole life, and you won’t be a whole person if you let it take too much of you,” he said. “But it can be a means to an end and open many doors.”
Russell’s stay was not long. After the banquet, he got in his car and drove home. For his troubles, he took back a little piece of Bradford. He was given a gallon of 1965 “fancy” maple syrup from the Harold Hatch farm.
The author is the editor of the Journal-Opinion, the weekly community newspaper for Bradford and surrounding towns. He may be contacted at email@example.com.