Jim O'Donnell: Russell and Scully pursued excellence -- and both surpassed it
A FAVORITE JOHN F. KENNEDY QUOTE -- one he used multiple times -- was: "The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along the lines of excellence."
By that standard, Bill Russell and Vin Scully had every right to die as happy men this week.
They worked distinctly different sides of the front row.
But few in the last seven decades of American sports excelled at their chosen primary pursuit to the summa cum loft degree that Russell and Scully did.
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RUSSELL WAS SIMPLY the greatest championship basketball player of all time.
History fully supports that statement.
In a majestic 15-year span (1954-69), Russell won 14 major titles. That included two NCAA championships (1955-56), a gold medal at the December Summer Olympics in Melbourne (1956) and 11 NBA crowns (1957, 1959-66 and 1968-69).
Beginning with his junior year at the University of San Francisco, the nonpareil No. 6 lost only one elimination game in which he played. That was Game 5 of the 1967 Eastern Conference Finals when Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer and a transcendent band of Philadelphia 76ers defeated Russell's Celtics.
When Boston lost the 1958 NBA Finals to Bob Pettit and the St. Louis Hawks, Russell missed the final two games with a severely sprained ankle.
Other than that, perfection -- in a game not designed to sustain flawlessness.
HE ALSO CAME UP WITH perhaps the most succinctly eloquent breakdown of what basketball is:
"It's a combination of war and ballet," Russell said, and who would know better?
He appeared to promote his off-court image as an Angry Young Black Man amid the insidious racism of Boston during his first decade with the Celtics.
Then, out of his intellectual strata, came his first book -- "Go Up For Glory" (1965). It was written with a brilliant Bostonian named Bill McSweeney, who would soon after leave sports writing to advise U.S. presidents and titans of industry.
In straightforward fashion, Russell laid out his life sequencing from Louisiana to Oakland and San Francisco to Boston.
Interwoven was an organic logic of illogic that blended his general mistrust of white people with his innate ability to craft fast breaks and championships with paler Celtics like Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman and John Havlicek.
THE BOOK HAD A PROFOUND EFFECT on a seventh-grader at St. James Junior High in Arlington Heights.
So much so that a little more than two decades later, when Russell was upstreaming as miscast head coach of a cutout bin of Sacramento Kings, the grown-up lad lingered in the visitors locker room at Chicago Stadium after a blowout victory by Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Russell was finally alone. The sports writer walked up, introduced himself and said:
"Bill, I always thought there might come a day when I would actually get to tell you, I did a book report on 'Go Up For Glory' in seventh grade. It made me a slightly more aware person ... at least for a 12-year-old."
He graciously cackled and said, "I hope you got an 'A.' "
In his 88 years, Bill Russell learned a lot about getting "A's" -- and the conduct of a life champion amid the swirling vagaries of the contemporary American condition.
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VIN SCULLY ALWAYS HAD baseball -- and baseball had him for as long as he wanted.
There is no equitable way to determine who has been "the greatest" play-by-play caller in the history of the game.
There is also no way Scully isn't on the shortlist.
He had an enormously comfortable, informed style. He also greatly benefitted from gradually emerging on the national scene as a regional legend. That followed a couple of startup decades calling the Dodgers on radio in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
AS A TEEN, SCULLY THOUGHT he would wind up a sports writer.
He worked for a time as a copy boy at The New York Times. At Fordham University -- where one chum was future Bulls defensive mastermind Johnny Bach -- he wrote the sports people column in the school newspaper ("Watching Them All.")
His first big break came at age 23 when mentor Red Barber lobbied for him to replace Ernie Harwell in the Brooklyn broadcast booth. Harwell had crossed the East River to call the baseball Giants.
The second stroke of Scully fortune came when Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley asked him to maintain his p-b-p perch when the Dodgers moved to L.A. for the 1958 season.
THERE, WITH THE TEAM playing its initial four seasons at the cavernous Memorial Coliseum -- which could hold close to 93,000 for baseball -- Scully lucked into what he called his "best broadcast friend ever.
"It was the development of the transistor radio," he later told numerous interviewers. "Any fan coming to a Dodgers game at the Coliseum had to bring one, especially the ones 70 rows up. And they all depended on me to confirm they just saw what they indeed had just seen down on the field."
The national acclaim would come later. His baseball arc is well-known, peaking in the minds of many with his call of Kirk Gibson's mythical Game 1 home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series -- along with the Scully silence that followed.
HIS RENOWN ALSO SURVIVED some career swerves.
In the mid-70s, he started calling NFL games for CBS. One occasional partner was Johnny Morris. A more frequent one was Hank Stram. His smooth baseball flow easily transferred. But his platinum knack for "storytelling" had little room on the tightly templated grid telecasts.
By the start of the 1981 season, the hot presence on the network's NFL front was John Madden. Scully and Pat Summerall alternated for a while as Madden's broadcast partner.
Finally, CBS Sports chieftains gave the No. 1 chair to Summerall. Scully quietly informed them he was finished with their NFL coverage. His final game for CBS was Dwight Clark's magic "Catch" that clinched the 1981 NFC Championship for San Francisco over Dallas.
THAT DECISION LEFT SCULLY quietly contending to be NBC's lead MLB play-by-play man.
There, he had to float adroitly as the star of Joe Garagiola continued its fade and the rise of Bob Costas was only just beginning. Scully hung on for seven seasons (1983-89), enough time to be playing to the nation when Gibson summoned his King Arthur bat.
He retired once and for all from local Dodgers broadcasts following the 2016 season. His second wife Sandy died of ALS last year after 48 years of marriage. First wife Joan died of an accidental medical overdose in 1972.
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TO HIS FINAL DAYS, Scully -- a devout Roman Catholic -- believed in work and the power of prayer to The Blessed Virgin as two of life's most reliable sanctuaries.
Bill Russell grew to understand the power of power. He literally revolutionized the way basketball could be played and it is extremely unlikely anyone will ever match his championship numbers.
As a man, Russell set an example about the possibilities of independent thought that had its roots in the wake of Emmett Till and were acknowledged by Barack Obama with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It hasn't been a rough week for sports in America.
It's just been one that calls for profound, heartfelt gratitude.
• Jim O'Donnell's Sports and Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at email@example.com.