You Can Do This

Life had already been hard for Bill Russell as a kid and now it was going to get a lot harder. The Russell family had moved from Monroe, Louisiana, a segregated city where racism was the norm, out to Oakland, California for Russell’s father to find work. But the work didn’t come easy and the family fell into poverty, bouncing between public housing projects throughout Russell’s youth. Finally, his father found work as a truck driver, forcing him to spend long stretches of time away from his family. Then, quite suddenly, Bill Russell’s mother died, leaving the family of three to fend for themselves.

Russell’s father sat his boys down and told them they had to pull themselves together. They didn’t have the luxury of feeling sorry for themselves. It was a pep talk that Bill Russell—who would later be coached by some of the greatest, most inspiring leaders in the history of sports—would remember all his life. “He talked about all the things we’d have to learn to do for ourselves,” Russell later recalled. “‘We gonna cook. We gonna wash [his father said] We gonna get along. And remember, I’ve got to work. When I come home, I’m gonna be half hot anyway and I don’t want to be raising hell with you about nothing. We gonna wash our clothes. We gonna keep our bed clean. We gonna live like people. And you two are gonna get an education.”

And you know what? That’s precisely what the family did. Russell attended McClymonds High School, where he was a raw talent on the basketball team, cut twice due to his lack of experience, but he worked hard on his fundamentals, which eventually earned him a scholarship offer from the University of San Francisco. Once there, he grew three inches and his ability on the court exploded, setting all sorts of NCAA records, and he later led the U.S. national basketball team to a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics, where Russell’s squad beat their opponents by an average of 53.5 points per game. And then Bill went pro and played 13 seasons for the Boston Celtics, winning 11 NBA titles and becoming arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.

His brother Charlie, meanwhile, attended the same university and developed into an award-winning playwright, renowned for his moving and often comic depictions of working-class African-American families. It was the kind of success and happy ending beyond anything their father could have imagined, and yet was exactly what he had made possible.

Whatever it is that your family faces—however fair or unfair, big or small—know that you can pull yourself together. Know that you learn what you have to learn and do what you have to do. You can get along. You can take care of each other. You can live. Your kids can get that education. In fact, it’s not just that you can do all this, it’s that you must.

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