The Genius of NBA Legend Bill Russell

I spent five hours with Bill Russell last week and thought of Kobe Bryant twice and only twice. One time, we were discussing a revelation from Russell’s extraordinary biography, Second Wind, that Russell scouted the Celtics after joining them in 1956. Why would you scout your own teammates? What does that even mean? Russell wanted to play to their strengths and cover their weaknesses, which you can’t do without figuring out exactly what those strengths and weaknesses were. So he studied them. He studied them during practices, shooting drills, scrimmages, even those rare moments when Red Auerbach rested him during games. He built a mental filing cabinet that stored everything they could and couldn’t do, then determined how to boost them accordingly. It was HIS job to make THEM better. That’s what he believed.

That’s from this excellent article by Bill Simmons (this post is one of many I wanted to write on it). Here’s some more:

…But if you think of Russell as a genius — which he was — it might make more sense. Here’s an example: A few years ago, Russell’s wife2 searched his name on eBay and found someone selling a DVD of one of Russell’s college games. She bought the DVD and surprised him with it. They started watching the game: San Francisco (Russell’s team) and Oregon State.3 Bill Russell could rattle off every play before it happened. Not a few of the plays. Not half of the plays. Every play. For a random college game that happened in 1955.

“I can’t do that anymore,” Russell said last week. “I’m older now. If you showed me an old game now, I couldn’t remember every play, just most of them.”

I think there are two interpretations of Russell’s genius, which I agree is genius. First, you could imagine him as having a photographic memory, which is what I think Simmons is getting at and Russell is kinda going along with.

For another interpretation, let’s go back to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

Your brain is composed of two modes of thought: System One and System Two. System Two is the conscious part, the part that does most of what we think of as “thinking” like math and poetry and deliberate learning.

System One is the unconscious part. This is what is at work when a chess master predicts a match outcome with a single glance or when a nurse evaluates a patient’s condition by walking through a room. Years and years and thousands of hours of using System Two on these problems creates a vast catalog of experience. This experience is mostly unseen; you don’t remember it all consciously, but your System One can access it at extraordinary speeds, compare the situation in front of you to it and give your gut a… feeling.

That’s what I think Russell was actually doing when watching that video. Think of the first quote: he scouted his own teammates. He knew their game intimately. He probably wasn’t so much consciously remembering each play as evaluating each play. Knowing what he knew of the players and himself he could predict how the plays *should* play out and typically did. There would be times when something unexpected happened and those memories probably stuck out more prominently, but mostly it was just immersing himself in the System One routine again.

So I’d say, in this case, his genius is the 99% kind.

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