What does former National Basketball Association great Bill Russell have to do with leading classes and workshops about writing novels? I’ll tell you…shortly. But, first things first.
MY STUDENTS NEVER KNEW
I began facilitating novel-writing workshops in the early nineties, a necessity born of having to pay the bills. My first gig was with Vista Adult Education in the North County area of San Diego. This led to a two-decade career with the University of California, San Diego’s Extension arm as well as classes and workshops, ranging from one day to weekly for three months, with a number of community colleges.
Also in the early nineties I joined the faculty of a writers’ conference, which led to the same gig with another conference, and later on additional conferences, as well as writers’ retreats. I taught numerous classes for the San Diego Unified District’s GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program for kids from third to twelfth grade. And for over fifteen years I facilitated a gazillion read & critique classes in my home for groups of from five to ten writers.
With all of that experience you would think that teaching would become second nature, no? So why, oh why, did I find myself getting sick to my stomach before just about every class and workshop that I led?!? The stress of anticipation, I guess. Fortunately, it always went away when I got to the front of the classroom or auditorium, and my students never knew that I came so close to tossing my cookies.
EVEN A CHAMPION FREAKS OUT
Okay, so what does Bill Russell have to do with what I just detailed? Russell, a Hall of Famer, played for the Boston Celtics from the late 1950s all through the ’60s. With the 6’10” Russell as their centerpiece, the Celtics won numerous titles during that time. Individually, Russell won the league’s Most Valuable Player award five times and was an All-Star for twelve years. He won a number of rebounding titles and is the only other player, along with Wilt Chamberlain, to record FIFTY rebounds in a game. Bottom line: Bill Russell was one heck of a basketball player.
So why did this champion throw up before every game he played?!?
I kid you not, this is what he did. I’d known about it for a long time. As a kid growing up in The Bronx I was a New York Knicks fan, and I still remember when my dad took me to a Knicks-Celtics game at the old Madison Square Garden. We went down to the court before the start of the game and stood near the entrance to the visiting team’s locker room. I had to look straight up to make eye contact when the Celtics came out, and I recall the serious scowl on Bill Russell’s face. Years later, I found out why.
Russell had high expectations for himself, as well as the other players, and his pre-game intensity caused him to vomit every time. Not just vomit, but do it explosively, to the point where his teammates expected it and grew concerned as game time neared and they had not heard him toss his cookies as yet. It is said that before a playoff game the Celtics’ legendary coach, Red Auerbach, had not heard Russell puke, so during warmups he pulled his team off the court and told them not to return until the big center did his thing. Russell finally did, and naturally the Celtics went out and won the game.
So if a great player like Bill Russell could hurl before every game, I guess it wasn’t out of the realm of reality for me to get sick to my stomach before every class and workshop I taught. At least I didn’t toss my cookies, not even once. 🙂