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BILL DWYRE

Lakers and Celtics find a common opponent: cancer

Bill Russell steals the show from Magic Johnson at charity dinner

August 15, 2009|BILL DWYRE

Just when all of us in Lakerland thought it was safe to go back in the water, along came another Celtics shark, chomping on our self-satisfaction.

It was a perfect Southern California summer night in Beverly Hills on Thursday. Nice charity dinner, great cause, more basketball stars in the room than you'll see on NBA All-Star weekend. As Jerry West said, "There is more star power here than at the ESPYs." And he, of course, would be counted in that.

Yes, there was plenty to feel good about, and certainly no expectation that somebody from the city where they call a park a pawk would steal the limelight.

We are Hollywood. They are roughnecks from the South End. We built our basketball legacy at a place called the Fabulous Forum. They built theirs at a rat-infested hole called the Boston Garden.

In the world of pro basketball, they had tortured us and won most of the close games and titles. We'd had enough of it. So this season's NBA, when they weren't around at the end, gave us some of our swagger back. We were in step with Randy Newman again. We love L.A.

And then, in one of our fancy ballrooms with more than 1,000 people on hand, a tall and somewhat cranky man with a white beard and a mystical presence stood before us. There he was, old No. 6, reminding us again how damn difficult it is, and always will be, to keep this green-wearing, shamrock-loving basketball team out of the spotlight.

Bill Russell is 75 years old. He had 13 chances at NBA titles as a player and won 11. Before he came to the pros, he led his University of San Francisco team to two NCAA titles and squeezed in a gold-medal performance in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne before reinventing the pro game and demolishing Celtics rivals. All too often, those competitors were the Lakers.

Yet there is a fascination about this proud man, even in our town, that has never totally diminished, even as he has drifted out of the headlines and into the twilight of his life.

Just getting him to come out in public is no small feat, but somehow Dana and David Pump, whose Harold Pump Foundation raises money to fight cancer, did just that.

Russell was to be one of two main award recipients, and the other, Magic Johnson, is certainly no slouch, in life or at a speaker's podium. But when Russell is in the room, there is only one star.

He was introduced by Doc Rivers, the current Celtics coach, who said he didn't expect to be welcomed back to this dinner next year, meaning he plans to take the title back from the Lakers. Russell was also introduced by Sam Jones, who said the only reason he made the Celtics back then was because he was the only other black player, "and Red Auerbach said Russell needed somebody to talk to."

John Havlicek, calling Russell the "greatest winner of all-time," told the story about Russell stepping in front of an angry Wilt Chamberlain, who'd had enough of Auerbach's taunts, and telling Wilt he'd have to go through him to get to Red. "When Wilt turned away," Havlicek recounted, "Russ mumbled he was sure glad Wilt hadn't taken him up on that."

The old Celtic stood up and quickly defined what it meant to be one.

"I could not go to heaven once I left the Celtic locker room," Russell said, "because any place outside of that is a step down."

He said he wanted to make his whole career about winning, and he joked about all these "Greatest Players of All Time" lists he sees.

"I'm always No. 8 or No. 9," he said, laughing, "and I always want to ask them to take any two of the players above me and I'll match rings with the pair."

He praised Magic Johnson and said that Magic's Showtime Lakers were the only non-Celtic teams he had watched closely over the years with some trepidation.

"But we'd still have beaten you," he said, the famous Russell cackle echoing through the room.

But he was there for more than joking and joshing about the good old days.

"In January, I lost my life partner," he said. "Now, any time I hear the word cancer, I feel sad."

He called the disease that had taken the life of Marilyn Nault, whom he had known since the early '70s and married nearly three decades later, his "mortal enemy."

He talked about promising her father that he would make Marilyn laugh at least once a day.

"All the time I was with her, we were having fun," he said. "We went on a trip, she was driving and handed me her glasses. She said they were smudged. I cleaned them off and handed them to back to her. She put them on, looked at me and said, 'My God, you're black.' "

An audience that had always known about the length of the man was quickly learning about his depth.

"She was the great gift that God gave me," he said, "and cancer took that away. I'm wounded by that. I'll never be the same."

In the end, the evening may have marked the first joint Lakers-Celtics undertaking.

The mutual success could be easily measured in dollars, one million of them raised in the midst of a bad economy and enhanced by such magical moments as Denzel Washington calling in his regrets for not being able to attend.

"But he said he'd donate $100,000," announced Dana Pump, one of the twins who is indistinguishable from his brother and who started this dinner 10 years ago to honor their late father.

Johnson was introduced by West and Pat Riley, spoke last and not only understood the impact of the evening's Celtics invasion, but correctly deferred to his legendary senior peer.

"You talked about me tonight, Bill, and that meant a lot," Johnson said, "because, all along, I only wanted to be you."

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

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