Catching Up With Seth Abraham, Part 3: Pursuing Bill Russell

During his time at HBO Sports, Seth Abraham had one main subject in mind for one of the network’s much acclaimed documentaries: Bill Russell. Here, he recalls the story about his pursuit of the NBA legend and the mark it made on him.
Abraham talks about his pursuit of NBA legend Bill Russell.
Photo by: PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
“For years and years, I wanted to do a documentary about Bill Russell. He is a true Renaissance man, and I wanted to do a documentary film about him. Every time I spoke to him about it he said no. I went to half a dozen people to speak on my behalf to him and he said no to all of them. A very illustrious group of people, and he still said no. So, I dropped it; he obviously didn’t want to do it.

A couple of years later, Lou DiBella, who worked for me at HBO and oversaw the boxing, said, ‘You know Seth, but I went to law school with Bill’s oldest daughter Karen, why don’t we go to Boston and meet her?’ So we go to Boston and I tell her the story. She says, ‘I don’t know if my father will do this, but I will talk to him.’ A month goes by, Bill Russell calls me. ‘You [expletive], I can’t believe you went to my princess. I can’t believe you found my Achilles’ heel. She thinks I should do it, I hate to disappoint her. I’m going to do it.’ He says, ‘The only thing I insist on, I want approval of the writer.’ I said, ‘Bill, I’ve been working on this show in my mind for six years. I have a writer. Frank Deford.’ He said, ‘Approved.’ They’re friends, I knew that.

But here is another part of the story. As our producer Ross Greenburg is working on the documentary, I said to Ross, ‘It’s your call, but let me give you a suggestion. Let’s not use Liev Schreiber on this documentary, let’s use Bill. Let’s have Bill tell his own story.’ And Ross buys into it. So here we go. And one part just sticks with me. You’re now listening to Bill Russell. It’s his second exhibition game, he’s drafted by the Boston Celtics out of the University of San Francisco. The team flies into Syracuse to play the Syracuse Nationals in an exhibition game. A good-looking, well-dressed man goes up to Red Auerbach in the terminal, and says, ‘Mr. Auerbach, my name is Joe, I’m a real Celtics fan. Can I get your autograph?’ Auerbach says, ‘What’s your name again?’ He tells him. Auerbach signs a book. ‘To Joe, best wishes, go Celtics.’ Again you’re listening to Bill. Now Joe goes up to Bill Russell and says, ‘Aren’t you the new Celtics center? Aren’t you the All-American center and the new Celtics center?’ Russell says, ‘No.’ The guy looks at him and says, ‘No?’ Russell says, ‘No.’ The guy walks away with a strange look on his face. Auerbach sees this and walks over and says, ‘Bill, he asked you politely, he was respectful, why didn’t you sign his autograph book?’ And Russell, at 24 years old, says, ‘Mr. Auerbach, that’s what I do for a living, but that is not who I am.’ And I used to remind myself of that all the when I worked at HBO and Madison Square Garden: It’s what I do for a living, but it’s not who I am.”

 “Bill Russell: My Life, My Way” premiered on HBO Sports in 2000.

Click here to read:
Part 1: Trusting The People You Hire
Part 2: A Job Interview To Remember

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HBO, HBO Sports, NBA

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