Bill Russell and the chain that connects the NBA to our own history
The world didn’t just lose its greatest sports champion and civil rights leader on Sunday, when Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell died at 88. We have lost a touchstone of our history that can never be replaced.
The NBA is different from most institutions in the way it embraces the greats who built it. Only Pete Maravich had died when the league honored its 50th anniversary team in 1997, and 47 people attended the ceremony. Forty-five of the 61 living members were present for the team’s 75th anniversary celebration in February, two years after the start of a global pandemic. These giants are among us, and we don’t appreciate them enough.
Russell was singular. He entered the NBA in 1956 and won 11 of the next 13 championships. He was the league’s first black superstar and the first black head coach of any professional team in North America. He was a childhood friend of Johnny Mathis, a guest of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, and a pallbearer at Jackie Robinson’s funeral. He attended the Cleveland summit in support of Muhammad Ali’s protest against the Vietnam War in 1967 and won Barack Obama’s Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
And he was here just yesterday, living long enough to see his life’s work come full circle. The same city that rained racism on him during his playing career showered him with standing ovations some 50 years later.
“Today we lost a giant”, Obama wrote in a Twitter tribute on Sunday. The country’s first black president added, “For decades Bill endured insults and vandalism, but that never stopped him from standing up for what is right. I learned so much from his way of playing, his way of coaching and his way of living. his life.”
A statue of Russell now stands in front of Boston City Hall, just steps from where civil rights lawyer Ted Landsmark was nearly killed by a group of white teenagers protesting the first attempt at the city to desegregate its schools. He only accepted the honor when the Celtics agreed to fund an annual grant for local mentorship programs.
“There are no other people’s children in the United States,” reads the statue’s inscription, echoing the words of wisdom of mentoring he wrote for the Harvard Business Review. “There are only next-generation Americans.”
Few people have done more for their generation than Russell, whose public life spanned 13 US presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Joe Biden, and we are better for it. Imagine our impact if we could ever get close.
The NBA named its Finals MVP award for Russell in 2009, and he was on hand to present it every year until 2019, when fears of COVID-19 limited him to congratulating annual winners in videos he posted on Twitter.
His connections extended to 2022 recipient Stephen Curry, among the privileged few whom Russell roasted and recalled, “I only give a hard time to guys I really like.” When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal presented him with the NBA’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, Russell singled out each of the five centers whose career spanned the first 42 years of his retirement and told them through that unforgettable giggle, “I would kick your ass.“
Russell once gave Charles Barkley the middle finger on live television and warned Michael Jordan during a round of golf: ‘I don’t think you’ll live long enough’ to break his records of 11 titles and eight in a row.
What makes the NBA so special are those bonds forged across generations, all of which have members still with us. Bob Pettit, 89, attended the team’s 75th anniversary commemoration in Cleveland.
“Let me tell you, anyone who says it’s not nice to be called back is lying,” Pettit, still a New Orleans Pelicans season ticket holder, told Steve Aschburner of NBA.com. “It’s very good. So I’m very happy to be one of the 75, as I was happy to be one of the 25 and one of the 50. I may not be here for 100.”
Kevin Garnett, to whom Russell once said: “I couldn’t be more proud of you than I am of my own childrensays “everyone has a vet” – someone who takes you under their wing until you’re ready to fly on your own. Sam Mitchell was his. He was Rajon Rondo’s. Rondo is to Darius Garland.Four players, 33 and older The league is now working on a ninth decade of mentorship, and Russell was the greatest of them all.
The fact that Russell was in our lives until Sunday reminds us how relatively young the NBA is and how fresh some of the scars from its past still are. Russell led a walkout when, in 1961, a Kentucky restaurant told Celtics teammates Sam Jones and Satch Sanders, “We really can’t serve you.” Half a century later, Russell was kneeling in support of former Super Bowl starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the nation’s sitting president still pleaded with NFL owners to “get that son of a bitch off the pitch now.”
When Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks opted out of Game 5 of their first-round playoff series to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in August 2020, Russell was there to support them.
Through Russell we could see our own story, both sordid and glorious. He was the beacon.
You couldn’t see Cy Young sitting with Clayton Kershaw or Georges Vézina hanging out with Marc-André Fleury, but Bill Russell befriended every superstar that followed, and they kissed him back. As the NFL, MLB and NHL engage in tumultuous public relationships along with legends Tom Brady, Barry Bonds and Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan is on the NBA Board of Governors, and LeBron James will join him in retirement.
That’s why Kobe Bryant’s death hit the basketball world so hard two years ago. The Los Angeles Lakers bond that bound Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, O’Neal, Bryant and James through five decades of fandom has been severed, and we’ve never been able to get it back. There won’t be the 84-year-old Bryant cheering on the 2062-63 Lakers from the sidelines, like Russell did at that age for his Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. 2018.
The deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis also disrupted the passing of the torch from Russell, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and Larry Bird to Paul Pierce and now Jayson Tatum. But Russell has brought them all together, in the same way that Abdul-Jabbar is ever-present in our lives and regularly shares his wisdom in a Substack newsletter.
“There is a lot more truth, love and respect in my 60 year relationship with Bill Russell that I want to share so the world can know him, not just as one of the greatest basketball players -ball of all time, but as a man. who taught me to be bigger – as a player and as a man”, Abdul-Jabbar wrote on Mondayadding: “He had kept calling me a kid ever since we first met when I was 14. I think it was his good-natured way of reminding me that he was there first and that I would always follow in his footsteps. giant.”
The beginning of this NBA chain leaves us now. Until Tommy Heinsohn died in November 2020, you could still find him before games in the TD Garden Media Dining Room, where he discussed how Russell would have dominated today’s NBA. Gone too, Sam and KC Jones and Havlicek. Only Sanders and Bob Cousy remain among the Hall of Famers who made the Celtics a dynasty and the NBA a juggernaut.
“Satch always says, ‘Don’t look over your shoulder. Cousy old The Boston Globe upon learning of Russell’s death. “So I’m more and more aware of that every time the phone rings and I get news like this. But I’m realistic. I’m ready for the big basketball court in the sky.”
It will only get bigger in the years to come as we continue to lose these giants among us. All the more reason to appreciate Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and the touchstones of the NBA in our history while we can.
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