From the Dean: What Bill Russell can teach us about healthcare
One of my long-time heroes died last week at the age of 88. Bill Russell, the renowned defensive superstar center of the Boston Celtics basketball team from 1956 through 1969, passed away peacefully with his wife at his side (according to news reports). I became enthralled with the Russell persona as a young basketball fanatic while in high school. Back then I wore a t-shirt that actually had the following wording on the front: “Basketball is life. Everything else is detail.” I read and then re-read Russell’s autobiographical book Go Up for Glory. It’s an amazing book about sports, yes, but so much more, especially what was like to be Black growing up in the then-segregated American South. I played full-court basketball weekly into my 50s, and still proudly display the basketball that my cardiology fellows (with whom I played hoops) gave me when I left Michigan to come to North Dakota in 2004.
So, why am I recounting the life of Bill Russell and what he meant to me, although we never met in person? And what does all this have to do with the UND SMHS and our students, faculty, and staff? Well, everything, it turns out. Because Russell to me personified three exemplary qualities that are incredibly important in the health professions: a relentless pursuit of excellence; an unshakeable commitment to do the right thing, no matter what; and the maintenance of equanimity, grace, and restraint under pressure.
Although a few other names come to mind when considering the greatest professional basketball player of all time (think Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant), I don’t think anyone would dispute that Russell was by far the greatest team athlete ever, on any professional sports team. He made all of his teammates better players (and likely better people as well). His winning record is unmatched: while Russell was their center, the Boston Celtics won 11 championships out of 13 trips to the NBA Finals. Ten of those championships were decided by a pivotal seventh game, and Russell and the Celtics won every one of those games! Ten out of ten. That record is unmatched in sports, and likely will not be broken in the future. Thus, striving for – and achieving – excellence in what you do is Russell’s most widely acclaimed achievement.
Equally important from my standpoint, however, was Russ’s lifelong commitment to social and racial justice. His was an earnest, vocal, and consistent voice for addressing the glaring imperfections in our society, and he never backed down from confronting racism, discrimination, and preferential treatment by individuals or society. His moral clarity – and his courage to confront discrimination – was not always welcomed in Boston, or elsewhere. Yet he remained committed and determined to follow where his mind, heart, and conscience directed him.
Amazingly, he did this in a dignified way, without shouting or yelling. Go up for Glory chronicles many of his experiences as he grew up and matured. And trust me, it is an amazing journey for those of us who are white and/or never grew up in the South in the old days.
Those three qualities – striving for and achieving excellence; standing up for principle; and showing grace under pressure – are essential qualities for all of us to strive for, but especially for those of us who are privileged to work in the health professions.
These attributes were on my mind at the White Coat Ceremony we held for the medical student Class of 2025 this past Saturday. As I’ve mentioned before, we do White Coat ceremonies each year for our medical and many health sciences students. During the ceremony, the students are given a white coat that they will wear during (and after) their clinical training. The ceremony typically is pretty emotional, as family and friends join together to celebrate the event. As is usually the case, we had about 500 attendees at the event. This White Coat Ceremony was especially poignant as it had been delayed for a year due to the pandemic. Our guest speaker was Dr. Paul Carson, professor of internal medicine at the UND SMHS and a faculty member at NDSU. He gave a truly memorable talk about “Finding and Maintaining Joy in Medicine.” In his closing remarks, he touched on the gratitude that we should feel for being given the opportunity to pursue such a fulfilling career, dedicated to helping others.
I am in turn grateful to Dr. Carson for such an inspiring talk, and to William Felton Russell (Feb. 12, 1934 – July 31, 2022), Boston Celtic #6, for his life-long commitment to excellence, justice, and elegance.
Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
Vice President for Health Affairs, UND
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences