Bill Russell honored by McClymonds High in Oakland, where his impact still resonates


They stood next to a banner worthy of the man – a photo of Bill Russell’s smiling face, his fingers covered in championship rings, alongside his towering list of accomplishments.

Two national titles at USF. Eleven NBA championships with the Boston Celtics. Five-time Most Valuable Player. First black head coach in major sports. Humanitarian. Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

And, to start it all over there in West Oakland: McClymonds High School Class of 1952.

McClymonds honored Russell in a brief ceremony before Friday night’s season opener against Bellarmine. Russell, one of the most prolific winners in sports history, died on July 31 at the age of 88.

So a group of former Mack basketball players — including former NBA star Antonio Davis and Will Cherry, who helped the Warriors win a state championship in 2008 — flanked the banner (which will soon hang in the school gymnasium) in midfield. Also in attendance was Bill Patterson, a 91-year-old gentleman who mentored Russell at nearby DeFremery Park and became his lifelong friend.

“Honestly, honoring Mr. Russell warms my heart, honestly,” Cherry said. “He’s a guy from Oakland who not only succeeded, he made an impact. This guy gave back and helped change the world.

Shortly after Cherry and his McClymonds teammates finished their 2008 season undefeated, Russell came to visit his old school. He showed up at the library one day and spent over an hour talking to players.

Russell wore several of his championship rings, which dazzled the teenagers fresh off their own title.

“It was amazing,” Cherry said.

He recalled the glimpse of Russell’s rings further motivating him to pursue his professional basketball dreams. Cherry played eight games with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014-15 and has since played professionally overseas, from Lithuania and Turkey to Greece, Croatia and Germany.

Davis — who spent 13 seasons in the NBA, mostly with Indiana and Toronto — also met Russell a few times along the way. He said the mere mention of McClymonds often made Russell nod and smile.

Russell, famous for avoiding autograph requests, signed one of his books for Davis, who considers it a treasured keepsake of fellow Mack alum.

“There’s just something ingrained in this high school,” Davis said. “When you play on that court or walk into that gym, there’s just something about it. I think that’s the spirit (of Russell).

Davis hopes Russell’s story — his social conscience and civil rights efforts as well as his many basketball accomplishments — will resonate through the generations. That’s the message Davis would take to McClymonds athletes today.

“Bill didn’t let anything get in his way – not skin color, not his size as an undersized center,” Davis said. “So you have a sense of responsibility going to this high school, walking on this ground or on this ground. You must be the same way.

Ron Kroichick is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @ronkroichick


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