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Learning About Bill Russell, Reflecting on Bob Avakian’s Leadership

Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain 1969 NBA playoffs


Bill Russell, left, challenges Wilt Chamberlain, 1969 NBA playoffs.    AP

I knew nothing about Bill Russell, the great basketball player and civil rights activist, before I read about him on the pages of revcom after he passed away. After that, I went on a bit of jag learning about him. Around this same time, a friend and comrade of mine reread Bob Avakian’s essay in BAsics titled, “‘A Leap of Faith’ and a Leap to Rational Knowledge: Two Very Different Kinds of Leaps, Two Radically Different Worldviews and Methods,” and we wrangled with this some together.

BAsics cover front


These two things together got me thinking more deeply about the unparalleled scientific communist leadership that Bob Avakian (BA) applies, what a game changer this is for humanity’s ability to get free, and the importance of all of us who want to contribute to that process consciously and continually deepening our ability to apply the same consistently scientific approach that BA models while bringing forward more and more others to do the same.

Let me explain.

After reading about Bill Russell at, I was interested in what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had written as well. I followed the links in Abdul-Jabbar’s pieces, then a few more, and later listened to an old interview that Terry Gross did with Russell. As the pieces in revcom noted, Russell played a tremendous role in speaking up against racism and oppression throughout his life. But the biggest thing I learned about Russell as a player was that he was not only an incredible athlete, but he was always the smartest guy on the court. He’d play “mind games.” One star player recalled how he took a shot and Russell blocked him. He tried again and Russell blocked him again. By the third time, this guy missed the shot because he was busy looking around to see where Russell was. Meanwhile, Russell had moved on to take a different player out of his zone. This was typical.

Russell played for the Boston Celtics from 1956 to 1969 and was a player-coach for the last three of those years.

Apparently, the great rivalry of that time was between Wilt Chamberlain, who was an aggressive rebounder and a record scorer, and Russell, who was the ultimate team player more known for his intellectual mastery of the game. I watched the two of them interviewed together. Russell was extremely precise in breaking down how he approached play against Chamberlain. In contrast, Chamberlain was far less theoretical and even teased Russell for being so intellectual in his answers.

When Terry Gross asked Russell how he drilled his team when he coached the Celtics, Russell started by explaining an exercise where they stretched their arms out to the side slowly to identify precisely how far their peripheral vision extended. Then they drilled fast-break rebounds where he’d jump and grab the ball and throw it to someone in the right color jersey who would know exactly where the outer limits of Russell’s peripheral vision reached. This way, Russell never had to turn his head to look before passing. This enabled them to break faster than anyone else. The other teams couldn’t keep up. Russell said this cut down on how many shots he would personally score because he’d rarely make it down to the other end of the court before his teammates had scored, usually in less than six seconds.

Terry Gross noted that Russell is an incredible jumper, but that Chamberlain was a full 5 inches taller. So how did he guard Chamberlain? Russell said that because he was left-handed and Chamberlain was right-handed, Russell didn’t have to reach across his body to block him and that gave him back 3 inches. Then he broke down how you can jump higher when blocking than you can when shooting because the jump becomes part of, and constrained by using its power to project into, the jump shot. That gave Russell 3 more inches. All of a sudden, he had an advantage.

But, Russell stressed, he could never play Wilt the same way for long or he’d catch on and overpower him. So, he never tried to block every shot. Sometimes he’d block. Sometimes he’d just move in close to force Wilt to adjust his stance before shooting. Russell would aim for something as slight as forcing Wilt to pivot 2 inches—enough to throw off Wilt’s shot and make him miss half the time, but not enough for Wilt to pick up on why he was missing more than usual. This would get inside Wilt’s head and throw him off further. You get the idea.

From Perceptual to Rational Knowledge

So, how does all this relate to where I started, with Bob Avakian’s essay on how people learn and know about the world?

In his essay on “Two Leaps,” BA breaks down how one can make a leap from knowledge derived from perception (what one can literally see or directly experience) to rational knowledge (identifying the “patterns” in what is perceived, the essential character of different things and the underlying dynamics that hold them together beyond what is outwardly apparent).

One example of this that BA gives is how, to someone unfamiliar with the game, football at first can seem like guys just running into each other in funny outfits. But, after observing for a while and gathering perceptual knowledge and identifying patterns, one can make a leap to rational knowledge, to understanding what the rules of football are and to understanding the game as a whole.

After showing how it applies in all realms of reality, BA makes this point:

The understanding of reality that is gained, through the leap from perceptual to rational knowledge, becomes, in turn, the basis, the foundation, from which further perceptual knowledge that is accumulated is analyzed and synthesized to make further leaps of this kind (from perceptual to rational knowledge yet again...and then again...). So the acquiring of knowledge—by individuals and by society and humanity overall—is not a “one-time” thing, but an ongoing process. [Boldface and underlining mine.ST]

Wrestling with this essay from BA at the same time that I was learning about Bill Russell made me very conscious of how much science Russell was bringing to bear all the time to the whole game. He didn’t just make the leap from perceptual to rational once to grasp the rules of the game... or just make a collection of further leaps to grasp certain strategies and plays... but all the time he was bringing to bear the full framework of what he understood about the game as a whole, about the various dynamics, about the different particular teams, about the different particular players, about different particular plays, and about how all this came together and what was key at any given time to drive towards his overarching goal of leading his team to win.

Certainly, in the moment, Russell was bringing all this to bear “reflexively,” but his ability to do that was rooted in having deeply internalized all of that theory and developed the ability at a very high level to bring it to bear when “thinking on his feet.”

This parallels how, in The New Communism, Bob Avakian takes apart all the scientific work and method that was the basis on which he was able to pivot in the moment when some dogmatic nationalists crashed a talk he was giving back in the 1970s. They raised up a map of the states where Black people were concentrated in an effort to challenge what BA was putting forward about how the liberation of Black people was bound up with the communist revolution in this country.  

But, rather than being thrown off by this, BA was able to utilize their map to further break down what the major changes in where Black people mostly lived—having moved from the rural countryside where they had largely been sharecroppers into the cities and urban areas mainly as proletarian workers at that point—and make an even deeper case for what this really revealed. At one point, BA even asked these nationalists to hold their map up higher so he could break this down further. To get the full example, you really have to go read it in Chapter 4 (page 371) of The New Communism —and it is worth it—but the point is that this is a great example of the art of extremely high-level communist leadership. It is filled with intangibles and a certain kind of poetry—on the basis of being deeply rooted in science. It is an example of tremendous confidence and creativity and daring and real optimism on that scientific foundation.

This same thing applies to Bob Avakian's leadership in an ongoing way.

Sunsara Taylor on: Learning About Bill Russell, Reflecting on Bob Avakian’s Leadership
From The RNL—Revolution, Nothing Less!—Show

If you look over the Outline at the back of The New Communism or his book Breakthroughs: The Historical Breakthrough by Marx, and the Further Breakthrough with the New Communism. A Basic Summary, you will see a breakdown of all the major dimensions of the new communism that BA has forged. Each of these is important in its own right, but they are also not “static.” They are not merely “proofs” that the system cannot be reformed and needs to be overthrown and replaced with a different system, though they certainly do prove this.

These breakthroughs are also part of the operational theoretical framework that BA applies in an ongoing way to analyzing the world and how it can be changed. All of this is what has enabled him to see in an unparalleled way the depth of the crisis this system is currently in and how this has given rise to splits within the ruling class that cannot be resolved on the terms that have held this system together for nearly 150 years. This is what has enabled him to see the explosiveness of what is being fought out today in a concentrated way around women’s right to abortion: whether women will be enslaved or emancipated. This is what has enabled him to analyze that this is a rare time when revolution is more possible. This is what has enabled him to lay out a road map for wrenching something truly emancipating—a real revolution—out of this situation that is right now accelerating towards something terrible. And these are but a few examples.

In this light, there is tremendous importance for all of us who want to contribute to the revolution necessary to emancipate humanity to not only continually dig into and deepen our grasp of the new communism that Bob Avakian has forged in all its particular dimensions and in its synthetic whole, but most of all to take up the same method and approach that he does. To continually develop our ability to apply this science in a living, operational and ongoing way, to do this collectively, and to increasingly bring forward waves of new revolutionary leaders capable of the same.

One final point about Bill Russell. Back in 2001, when she interviewed him, Terry Gross asked Russell if he can still jump. Russell explained how his body doesn’t move like it used to, but he said, “I still jump. I jump for joy.” He went into how important it is to never give up jumping for joy. This, too, relates to the leadership of BA, and to the kind of world and the beauty that the revolution he is fighting for will bring into being.

The New Communism


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