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Book Review: Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend by Bill Russell with Alan Steinberg

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“I need all the friends I can get.” said Charlie Brown, the lovable yet hapless protagonist of Peanuts

“I have a finite number of friends. I keep that number small and it never changes,” counters NBA Hall of Fame member Bill Russell.

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A most unlikely and unexpected friend turned out to be, as Russell described, “dear” and “special.”  Red Auerbach was Russell’s coach at the Boston Celtics, when together, they led the team to 13 NBA championships including eight in a row — a feat unmatched in any sport.

Russell was born in 1934 in Ouachita Parish in Northeast Louisiana.  Until he was nine years old, he called West Monroe his hometown.  His earliest foundation upon which he later established friendships was something he received from both parents — unconditional love.  The family moved to Oakland, California and Russell learned to cope with life in the projects.  It was there that his mother taught him to stand up for himself, “like a man.”  She required that he deal with some neighborhood bullies personally. Five fist fights later, under her observation, he had learned a lesson he would never forget. 

His parents taught him a value system that included a shared sense of commitment, loyalty, and devotion, things that would serve him well throughout his life.  These traits, he said, would also come with a Boston Celtic uniform. 

Having been born in the racially charged South, growing up in the projects in California, and seeing his parents’ trials and tribulations, civil rights became important to him.  His value system and sense of respect and friendship are permeated with racial sensitivity. He constantly refers to his cultural background and ethnic group as his “tribe.”  He never expected to become friends with someone from another tribe, especially a short, brash, Jewish guy from Brooklyn. 

Russell makes the disclaimer early on that he doesn’t know what specific traits Auerbach could attribute to his tribe, but they meshed nicely with Russell’s.  Much of the specifics of their relationship went unspoken — they were intuitive.  One example was when the two men had reached a point in their relationship that when a question came up that required a “yes” or “no” answer, either answer was fine.  It didn’t matter. They would both understand.  How many friendships could benefit from such a mutual respect

Russell’s well written book takes readers through a series of incidents and conversations to illustrate his advice on what it takes to create long lasting, deeply meaningful relationships.  He writes about how Auerbach used his skills not just with himself, but with every member of the Celtics.  Auerbach had the ability to tailor his approach to get the most of each relationship — for the benefit of the team.  Russell’s principles apply to all arenas of human interaction and such areas as race relations and parenting could certainly benefit just as much as coaching and teamwork.

Would I buy Red and Me? Yes.  It’s the best book on interpersonal relationships I’ve read since How to Win Friends and Influence People.  It’s also a “buy” for me because I’ve been a Boston Celtics fan for over 40 years.

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  • Reese McKay

    This is a great book to review, Chip. Thanks for recommending it to your friends. I heard Bill Russell talking about his special friendship with Red Auerbach (I believe it was on a radio interview, but can’t remember for sure). I still remember watching those Celtic teams winning some of those 13 championships. They were awesome. And I believe that Bill Russell is still the greatest defensive basketball player in NBA history. I have never seen another player who could do what he did routinely on defense. He often ended up alone on the defensive end of the court defending against two of the other team’s players coming down on a fast break. He very frequently stopped them both from scoring.