Vin Scully and Bill Russell: Essential voices lost

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Over a duration of roughly 48 hours from Sunday evening until Tuesday evening, the voices of first, Bill Russell, and then Vin Scully, were stilled for eternity. This does not mean that we will never hear them again; we surely will. Search, click, listen. ‘Little roller up along first…‘ Search, click, listen. ‘I would kick your ass…’ But those voices will no longer evolve with the world around them, as they once did splendidly and importantly, though very differently – Scully’s mellifluously and comfortably, Russell’s stridently and relentlessly – across lives that lasted 182 years in total. They were voices that carried the weight of history in very different receptacles, but imprinted themselves on generations.

The swift unfolding and discarding of information in our time will quickly and efficiently hasten both men from concurrently celebrated and mourned to concurrently shuffled to the broad expanse of history, where the elegantly faded relevance of a long life shifts inexorably to the hazy equity of legacy. Because this is what the present does to the past, and always has, although more ruthlessly nowadays, where delivery systems pass today’s news into yesterday’s more efficiently than ever. (A process that will only become more efficient).

They were born seven years apart, Scully in 1927 – the peak year of the Ruth-Gehrig Murderers’ Row Yankees – in the Bronx; Russell in the Jim Crow South (Monroe, Louisiana) in 1934, before moving to Oakland at age nine. Their lives would in many ways be tethered to their beginnings (as are all of ours), likely in ways they didn’t comprehend until well into adulthood (same) but embraced both gently (Scully) and forcefully (Russell). They were products of their beginnings, their races, and their chosen professions. In this same way, Scully remained voluble longer, because his implement of choice was, literally, a microphone (and a camera, though not at the beginning). Russell’s was a basketball, and the expiration date comes much sooner, although Russell’s importance long outlived his playing and coaching careers.

In a way, they were polar opposites, and not just because one was a red-haired white man, and the other Black. (Although that distinction is fundamental and vital). In the wonderful remembrances that have poured forth for Scully (and which poured forth upon his retirement in 2016), the word comfortable is omnipresent. Those who listened to his voice while sitting, while driving, while falling asleep in distant times, found comfort in its dependably soothing tones. Russell was not about comfort, and while his dominance as the leader of the Celtics’ dynasty from 1957-’69 brought joy to many, including William Felton Russell himself, it was a different kind of joy, connected to the brutal duality of sports that Russell understood better than all but a few others (Jordan, Belichick, Curry, to start): One wins (usually me), one loses (usually you); the rest is just filler.

Their lives were mirror images: Scully rose to become an icon in a manner that other broadcasters and journalists of all kinds would respect and admire (we love nothing more than to shade our easy lives with tales of when it was much harder, and yes, I froze my sorry butt off at the Union College vs. Ithaca D3 playoff game in 1984, and don’t you forget it). Scully did college football, college basketball, boxing… everything, in the mid- and late 1940s after graduating from Fordham. He once broadcast a frigid football game from the roof of Fenway Park without a coat or gloves, because he had expected to work indoors. Respect.

By the 1950s he was doing Brooklyn Dodgers games with Red Barber and that was a springboard to everything else. In the 70s and 80s, he was everywhere. Not just baseball, where he called Hank Aaron and Kirk Gibson, and sprinkled his broadcast with gentlemanly expressiveness like describing Bob Gibson as pitching “like he’s double-parked,” but also the NFL, where in 1981, he called The Catch, on each occasion rising to meet the moment and then generously getting out of its way.

As a practical matter, the last quarter century of his career was spent mostly with the Dodgers, but something more: He became, almost coincidentally, a steward for something simpler. His measured pace, his delicate wordsmithing, even the cut of his sportcoats and the perfection in his hairstyle, were beloved as counterweights to the noisy world that grew at arm’s length around him, to the catchphrase craze, to hot takes and embracing debate, to the decline of interest in America’s Pastime. He was a time machine, yet at the same time, never more current. Where others shouted to be heard, Scully simply spoke as he always had and we listened. Another word associated with Scully: Treasure. It was a good word.

Few used that word for Russell, and not because he wasn’t, but because it would constitute sanding down his rough edges, and his rough edges were important.

But his beginning: Because he was Black man in America, it would be ludicrous to suggest that Russell’s life wasn’t hard. Of course it was. As my former Sports Illustrated colleague Jack McCallum wrote in his eloquent obituary, “Russell was just 9 when his parents arrived in Oakland, and so he had only a minor sense of the Jim Crow indignities that his parents had suffered in Louisiana. Charles Russell had a shotgun stuck in his face at a gas station, and Katie was told by a policeman to go home and change because she was wearing `white women’s clothing.’ But the son came to know heartache and hard times on his own (his mother died when he was 12), and he would come to know virulent racism, too, especially after he arrived in 1950s Boston, a city that in some ways was not unlike Monroe…”

But athletically, after gawky beginnings, Russell rushed to greatness by dint of raw talent refined and tireless work, the tools of the transcendent. He was fantastically athletic, and applied that athleticism disproportionately to defense and team play throughout his career. He led the University of San Francisco to consecutive national championships in 1955-’56 (and a 55-game winning streak that lasted until John Wooden’s UCLA teams broke it), and was one of the best high jumpers in the world, despite poor technique and little practice. As a professional, he owned both Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West in the column that mattered most to him: Championships.

Through it all, racism followed. As Russell would write in his autobiography, his USF team was hounded on the road and barred from hotels. In Boston, even as he helped build the dynasty, his home in the nice suburb of Reading was vandalized, and the vandals defecated in his bed. He never forgot those moments (nor should he have been expected to): When his jersey was raised to the rafters of the old Boston Garden in 1972, he insisted that only his teammates were present. He didn’t attend his Hall of Fame induction three years later, although later in life he was pulled affectionately back in the NBA world.

What he did was immerse himself among the first generation of activist Black athletes , including Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Harry Edwards and a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among others. In 2015, I interviewed Brown at his Los Angeles home, and he recalled the summer of 1968, when Russell lived with him in L.A., as their collective activism roiled and grew. “Bill was a serious man,” said Brown, who at that time had been retired for three years, and was himself a serious man, in the extreme. “We talked about the state of the world as Black men in America. A lot of people came to this house.”

If Scully was an every day, every night reminder of a simpler time, Russell was just as much a reminder that times were not so simple, and for some Americans, never had been. He could laugh, a paint-peeling cackle that can’t be forgotten, but it was that seriousness that defined him more explicitly. He understood his reputation: When he was hospitalized in 2018, and then released, he Tweeted: “Thank you everyone for the kind thoughts, yes I was taken to the hospital last night & as my wife likes to remind me I don’t drink enough. On my way home & as most my friends know I don’t have a heart to give me trouble.”

He was also quick to remind any inquisitor that however you choose to frame his legacy (that word), he was the greatest winner ever. Maybe. He’s on the shortest of lists in that debate. It’s not Wilt or West, that much is certain.

His perspective was always essential. As was Scully’s. It’s trite to say that they will both be missed terribly. But it’s irresponsible to leave it unsaid.

Vin Scully and Bill Russell: Essential voices lost originally appeared on NBCSports.com