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Jim Brown and Bill Russell: An Enduring Friendship

Jim Brown (left) and Bill Russell

Jim Brown (left) and Bill Russell

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Jim Brown and Bill Russell: An Enduring Friendship

Jim Brown and Bill Russell had much in common: they excelled at the collegiate level in the mid-‘50s at predominantly white schools despite the racist attitudes of various authority figures; both had an immediate impact upon their sports once they turned pro; both were outspoken about the issues of the ‘60s; both left their games on top; and both were proud competitors.

Further evidence of the hold Jim Brown has in the American pop imagination – as if a 2006 biography, two autobiographies, and a 2002 Spike Lee documentary weren’t enough—comes with the re-publication by Rat Press of James Toback’s 1971 Jim: The Author’s Semi-Centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown. In the late ‘60s, Toback took an assignment from Esquire to do a feature story on Brown, and flew out to LA to spend some time with him. That article never happened, but Toback got a good picture of Brown’s life circa 1967-69: the activism, the parties, the still-burning competitive nature, even the relationship with the local authorities.

The fact that in Toback’s telling, the story is as much about him as it is about Brown doesn’t make this any less interesting a travelogue through Brown’s first few years after football, even as it simultaneously reduces and elevates him to some sort of totemic figure – a proto-Magical Negro, in some respects—against which a man can measure himself, as Toback does in bouncing his personal issues off against his time with Brown. (For his part, Toback re-investigated the notion of the complicated big black stud-as-muse with his recent acclaimed documentary Tyson, in which the former heavyweight champ achieves something of a life explanation/reputation reclamation).


cover art

Jim: The Author’s Self-Centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown

James Toback

(Rat Press; US: Mar 2009)

One of Toback’s adventures in Jim is sharing a round of golf with Brown and Bill Russell. Both men had much in common: they excelled at the collegiate level in the mid-‘50s at predominantly white schools despite the racist attitudes of various authority figures; both had an immediate impact upon their sports once they turned pro; both were outspoken about the issues of the ‘60s; both left their games on top (Russell retired in 1969 after leading the Celtics to 11 championships in 13 years as player and player-coach, the NBA’s first black coach); and both were proud competitors.

They were also great friends, as Toback captures in recounting their good-natured back-and-forth on the gold course. There was a nominal bet, but the afternoon was less about establishing superiority than about playing a game and having a good time.

Toback was too much in hero worship mode to notice that at the end of it all, nothing more remarkable happened than two black male icons of strength, achievement and conviction had just spent a few hours being, simply, friends. Of all the sides of black manhood seldom explored in mass culture, the aspect of friendship ranks right up there. Brown and Russell may have been known as athletic and social iconoclasts in their day, but that in no way precludes their humanity, or their ability to enjoy those moments when they can step away from it all and simply hang.

That friendship endured, and was on display during June’s installment of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. The host also spent a round with Brown and Russell on the links, the two warriors physically slowed by time (and Brown supporting himself with a cane) but still adept at trash talk. Neither could remember when he’d met the other, not that it really mattered. What was important was that through it all – the athletic records established, the FBI files earned for their activism back in the day, the challenges in their personal lives, their autumn years as elder statesmen of sport and social responsibility – their friendship endured.

Gumbel didn’t include much about their views on the state of sports today, but he did press them about their views on the level of social involvement from today’s megastar black athletes. Russell guardedly observed that the battles today are far different from the ones he and Brown waged, which were far different in turn from what Jackie Robinson went through to pave the road that all since him have followed. Brown was more dismissive, especially of Jordan and Woods, the two biggest black megastars ever, calling Woods’ demonstrated commitment to social causes, or the lack thereof, “terrible, terrible.”

The segment ended with Brown and Russell on the golf course, friends above all else. Forty years after Toback’s round, it’s still rare to see depictions of genuine friendship between black men. And 40 years after all manner of progress and struggles, from the Black Panthers to Barack Obama, it’s still gratifying to see those two noble black champions from a bygone time, still unbroken and unbowed.

One can only hope that 40-odd years from now, James will have a counterpart in sport and social engagement, and together the two brothas will be able to open up their friendship for an interviewer or other interloper, the victories that didn’t matter long since forgotten, the ones that matter still enduring, talking trash off into the sunset.

And who knows?  Perhaps that counterpart will be Shaquille O’Neal, the jovial giant whose own crossover appeal (star of postgame press conference one-liners, self-effacing commercials for everything from footcare products to cable TV, a couple of fair-to-middling rap records, a side career in law enforcement, and acting in TV shows, videos and movies we’ll not mention because, quite frankly, no one wants to relive the legendary-for-its-awfulness Kazaam) overlaps the years between Jordan’s career and James’. The Cavaliers recently acquired Shaq to pair with James for the 2009-10 run at the title, setting local sports talk radio ablaze with hope for the upcoming season four months away, as the Indians muddle through yet another disappointing campaign, and in advance of a Browns season no one expects to be all that fruitful.

O’Neal announced that he’d forgo his longtime uniform number 32 for 33, the number he wore in high school and college; a wise move, seeing that in Cleveland number 32 essentially belongs to Brown, who wore it during his Browns career and defined it in Cleveland sports forever since. So it’s safe to say that O’Neal too is aware, at least on a most basic level, of the mighty ground he walks upon.

But it’s not just him. All black superstar athletes owe Brown, whether they choose to acknowledge it, whether they follow his examples of social activism or success in pop entertainment, or not. By comparison, James and now O’Neal have it slightly easier. All they have to do is to keep a city’s heart from being broken yet again. Good luck with that, fellas—we Cleveland sports fans are counting on you.

Image (partial) Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel from interview with Brown and Russell.

Image (partial) Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel from interview with Brown and Russell.

Mark Reynolds has written extensively about African-American culture and celebrity since the late '80s. He began his print journalism career with the weekly Cleveland Edition, and was a longtime contributor to its successor, Cleveland Free Times. He has also written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and various publications in Cleveland and Philadelphia. His national credits include reviews and features for the college-distributed entertainment magazine Hear/Say, and reporting on the travel industry for the trade magazine Black Meetings & Tourism. His media criticism was honored in 2004 by the Society of Professional Journalists, Ohio chapter.

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