“I’d give you a…” the biggest winner of basketball told them.
The room exploded. All those regal great men laughed, but they dared not argue. Russell saved the biggest reaction for last, filling the air with his trademark high-pitched cackle. It was the last time a large national audience heard that cackling.
My God, we’re going to miss that chatter.
One of the most important lives in sports and celebrity history ended Sunday. Russell died at age 88, leaving behind a vast legacy of greatness as a player, coach, civil rights activist and humanitarian. While it’s fair to debate whether better individual basketball players have taken the field, Russell is an incomparable figure when he considers team success at all levels (high school, college, Olympics and the NBA), leadership, adaptability, mental strength and social impact of the floor. He was a star who did the dirty work, a defensive scholar who led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships by excelling at everything it took to win. And he was a star who did the important work, a disruptor who demanded better from America and confronted racism without fear or fatigue.
Feinstein: Bill Russell was the biggest winner a sport has ever seen
He was a full dimensional black athlete for over half a century before it was okay to be one. In the 1960s, vandals broke into his suburban Boston home, scribbled hate on the walls and left feces in his bed. But there was no intimidating Russell. On the field, he took on Wilt Chamberlain, a towering rival who, at 6 feet and 275 pounds, was four inches taller and 60 pounds heavier than Russell. Still, Russell’s Celtics dominated post-season matchups against Chamberlain’s teams. Although Chamberlain was an unstoppable force, Russell defeated him with cleverness, playing skill and his advanced understanding of the nuances of team play. He was also just as astute in real life.
“Bill stood for something much bigger than sport: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he instilled in the DNA of our league,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “At the height of his athletic career, Bill vigorously advocated civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed on to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps. Through the taunts, threats and unimaginable adversity, Bill rose above it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.”
Silver liked to call Russell “Baketball’s Babe Ruth for how he transcended time.” Russell and Chamberlain were among the pioneers in transforming the game into a more vertical show, one in which tall men with amazing jumping skills did unimaginable things in the air. Russell kept most of his athleticism for practical purposes: rebounding and blocking shots. He combined his physical skills with his mind, studying the way misfire bounced off the rim, and developed strategies for when and how to block shots.
There was artistry and calculation in everything Russell did. Sometimes, early in games, he would seem to come out of nowhere, rejecting shots far into the crowd to frighten opponents. Most of the time, though, he was a master of composure while blocking shots, preferring to tap the ball to himself or a teammate so the Celtics could gain possession. He knew it was more beneficial to keep the ball within range than the thrill of hitting it as far as possible. It even added to the fear factor when an attacking player had to consider that a shot close to Russell could work the same as a turnover.
Paying his respects on Sunday, Michael Jordan said of Russell: “He paved the way and set an example for every black player who came into the league after him, including me.” When Russell retired from the NBA in 1969, Jordan was six. Abdul-Jabbar was about to enter the league the following season. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were 10 years from the start of their NCAA Championship game rivalry. His heyday with Red Auerbach and the Boston star cast were so long ago, and the bias of recency has diminished any appreciation for the enormity of his influence. But considering all that the NBA – and sports in general – has become, Russell is one of a handful of the most important athletic icons to ever walk the planet.
He was a defining sports figure during a defining time in American history, speaking out during the same era when Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown and Abdul-Jabbar refused to remain silent. Russell was 13 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier of baseball in 1947, and he used Robinson’s example as a blueprint for his career. When Robinson died, Russell was a carrier at his funeral. on July 19, Russell wrote his last message on Twitterwe wish Robinson’s widow, Rachel, a happy 100th birthday.
Bill Russell remembered as a ‘pioneer’ on and off the pitch
Eleven years ago, when President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he reflected on the great man’s legacy.
“Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men,” Obama said at the ceremony. “He marched with King; he was with Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, he declined to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he remained focused on making the teammates he loved better players and enabled the success of so many to follow.”
There’s an old video where Russell tells the story of golfing with Jordan and playfully arguing with him the summer after the Chicago Bulls won one of their six titles.
“You know we’re going after your record,” Jordan told Russell.
“Which?” Russell fired back.
Russell continued: “You know, we won 11, but we won eight in a row. I don’t think you’ll live long enough to get either one.”
Jordan reminded Russell that for most of the center’s career, the NBA had only had eight teams and had expanded to just twelve by the end. Unlike a 30-team league, Jordan said. His Airness thought he had it. But Russell had just begun. He offered an argument about expansion and dilution.
“Think about it this way,” Russell recalled saying to him. “When I was a rookie, there were 80 jobs in professional basketball, so a lot of good players didn’t make it. If there were 12 teams, you wouldn’t win a championship. You’ve done a great job of penetrating and you’ve dispensed to [John] Paxson, and he hit the open shot, won the match. If there were 12 teams in the league, he wouldn’t be able to make that shot. He said, ‘Why not?’ Because he would be in the stands. And that’s not a knock on him, but it’s about the quality of the NBA.”
That was Bill Russell: smart, agile, determined. When he competed for championships and equality as a player, he was often regarded as aloof, even vulgar. But just when society thought he was holding him, he said something funny and let out that booming cluck.
People had to laugh too, even though the joke was on them. And it usually was. Russell was not beaten, on the field or in any of the arenas of life. It was best to help him find joy, because he had a way of making it contagious.