May 16, 2009

Bill Russell Banner Extra

Last weekend I got the chance to talk to Bill Russell about his lasts book, Red and Me: My Coach, My Friend. The book came out last Tuesday and Russell has been doing promotion for it since last Friday. I got a chance to speak with him on Saturday, but it almost didn’t happen.

When I received the email from my editor about covering the event, I was excited. Bill Russell is a Celtic icon, a basketball icon. Winner of 11 championships, all with one team, his legacy is apparent. I jumped at the chance to speak with him. Of course, I’ve come to realize that a good story is never that easy to get. On Friday, I emailed the publishing company that sent out the press release informing people of Russell’s stop in Waltham at the Costco Wholesale where he would be signing copies of his book. I received an out of office auto-reply from the main contact. But his email told me to contact some his colleagues for upcoming events.

A woman called me back, explaining to me that she was helping to cover weekend events that the publishing company was hosting. I explained who I was and that I would like to speak with Mr. Russell either before or after the event to ask him about the book. The woman was polite; she listened and even seemed sympathetic to my task.

Then she told me that the publishing company was not doing any more PR for the event, before or after. I was a bit taken aback by her outright denial of my request. I stammered a bit on the phone with her, not very professional on my part.

She was, however, upbeat about the fact that I could still attend the event and have a book signed by Mr. Russell. I know I can do that. I really don’t need someone to tell me that. I was annoyed with her response, but I thanked her for her time and hung up. It was clear to me that the publishing company wouldn’t be my avenue to get in to talk with Bill Russell.

I wasn’t too concerned. I planned to arrive at the Costco early enough to talk with the Costco management and see if I could work my way towards Russell once I was on-site.

Waltham is an interesting place. I’ve been out there a few times in the last three months, each time in the same area, Winter Street, off of route 128. Out there, everything is off of “Totten Pond Road,” and “just over the bridge” according to the various Shell Gas station attendants I invariably end up asking for directions. The station is located at the intersection of Totten Pond Road and Winter Street.
Once at Costco, I spoke to Greg, one of the store managers. He was hovering around a table stacked high with Russell’s book talking into a walkie-talkie. After I explained who he was and listed off a few names of people at the publishing company he told me that Russell wasn’t at Costco yet, but his publicist was in the back and that I could speak with her.

Now I’m making some progress.

The publicist, a woman in her mid fifties with shoulder-length dirty-blond hair, named Flip was running around the back hallways of the store with two books in her possession, a cell phone earpiece blinking in her left ear, and stack of sticky notes and pen clutched in one hand. My conversation with her went well. She was quick to point out that Russell had a flight to catch and couldn’t spare any time after the event ended to speak with me. And, that because he had to sign books for the employees, he had little time to speak to me before the event. I suggested that he and I talk while walked from the back of the store to the book signing table. She thought that was fine.

I must explain that Bill Russell is a tall man. He’s 6’10, but he might as well be ten feet tall to me. His lanky build coupled with his height give off the impression of extra height. I believe I came up to his chest, but it could have been his waist for all I can tell. He walks slowly and smiles a lot. He speaks softly and in a measured tone, he has this ability to mix wit and gravitas.
He said to me about his relationship with Red Auerbach “He never told me how to play and I never told him how to coach.” It’s so simple you chuckle at it, but think about it and you realize the level of respect inherent in the statement. Auerbach trusted Russell enough to let him play his game.

The event itself went off without a hitch. Flip used the sticky notes to write down the names of the people Russell needed to sign. Russell’s daughter, Karen, who came with him, spoke with fans as they got their books signed and helped manage the crowds. Peter Toporzycki received the ultimate treatment. He had three books signed, spoke with Russell and got a picture with him and his daughter. He was beaming as he walked away.

I caught up with him after the picture to get his feelings on the event. He gave me a great quote, the kind you’re looking for to cap a story like this. As we talked he told me he was a student at Boston College. Naturally, I told I was a student at Boston University and the Comm Ave hockey/football jokes were tossed back and forth. I wish I had more time to speak with Toporzycki. He had recently completed a project that involved Russell and other black athletes and I wanted to hear more about it. Unfortunately, these kinds of assignments don’t allow for too much meandering off topic. Also, with the quick turnaround necessary to get the story in the Banner the week after event, I’ve found that it’s a bad idea to try to cram too much into the story.

The story came out to just under 550 words. I felt that was a good length. I think it came out well even though my attempts were stymied a bit in the beginning. The lasting effect is that the Banner got the story it wanted and got it on time. I can live with that.

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