Bill Russell was a great athlete, a great American, a great man


We will all talk today about Bill Russell winning basketball because he is the greatest winner that team sports in America has ever produced. We will talk, and rightly so, exactly so about back to back NCAA championships the tall skinny boy from McClymonds High in Oakland won at the University of San Francisco, and the gold medal he won for his country at the Olympics and then the 11 championships NBA he won with the Celtics in 13 years, the last two as a player/coach, i.e. a black coach in Boston in the 1960s.

Of course, we will talk about the 10-0 record he had in the 7 games he played in his extraordinary life in the NBA. We lost all of that on Sunday when we learned that William Felton Russell had died at the age of 88. And lost as much of a giant as the sport has ever known. Do you know who was the greatest generation in professional basketball? It was.

We lost more than that, though, more than the Celtics center who made all that gain, and did so in a time when he played a total of 143 games against Wilt Chamberlain, who was bigger and stronger. than Russell because he was taller. and stronger than anyone. We lost a truly great American on Sunday, one who led a proud and eloquent and sometimes defiant American life; one who walked with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and spoke out against racism and injustice when far too many athletes did, especially in the 1950s and 60s.

Simply put: whatever we want athletes to be in this era in America, Bill Russell always was.

Bill Russell spoke constantly and tirelessly about a better, fairer and more equitable America, while being the center – and centerpiece – of the best basketball team to ever play professional basketball, the one coached by Red Auerbach. until Russell dragged him in after Red’s retirement. .

Later in life, he would once ask Auerbach if he had any advice on aging.

“Yeah,” growled the old man. “Do not fall.”

Bill Russell never fell. And when Red left the Celtics bench, no longer lighting victory cigars, Bill Russell stood up one last time, as did his team, and won two more titles.

I first met him when he was in high school. The Celtics held a practice one day, for some forgotten reason, at my high school, Bishop Guertin, in Nashua, NH My dad picked me up and introduced me to Bill Russell. When I raised a hand that disappeared into his, feeling like I was reaching the top of the gym, he asked me what I wanted to be. When I hesitated, mostly because I was mute, he smiled and said, “Anyway, be brave, young man.”

He was brave. He was as much a Jackie Robinson heir as anyone our sports have ever produced. He refused to be kicked out of the neighborhood in which he had bought a house in Reading, Mass. even after he and his family returned from a trip and found “N—a” written inside on the walls and feces on his bed. He called Boston a racist city back when the Boston school board segregated its schools. He declined an offer from Reverend King to be on stage with him when he gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, choosing to sit in the second row instead.

In his book, “Go Up For Glory”, written with William Mcsweeny, he wrote this in the foreword:

“I worked for money and I earned a lot of money. But I never loved money. I worshiped little and fought only for the rights of man, of all men, of all races and religions.

Later, Russell writes this in the foreword to the 2020 edition of this book:

“If someone asked me to write an epitaph, I would make it simple:

‘Bill Russell. He was a man.

In many ways, in all important ways, he was dominating everything, above his sport, above all the unrest and protests of the 1960s, in Boston and everywhere else in the country. There have been so many times in our recent past when we have urged and sometimes pleaded with our athletes to use their names and the platform their talent and fame give them and to take a stand on social justice, or to take the kind of knee that Colin Kaepernick did. No one has ever had to beg Bill Russell to speak or stand up. It was in his DNA, like all winners.

He once said this about his dear friend from Oakland, Hall of Fame runner-up Joe Morgan: “Isn’t it funny how good teams seem to follow Joe everywhere.” It was even more than that with Russell. Greatness followed him everywhere, from McClymonds, and later followed him to the front lines on all the big things in America.

On the last day of Black History Month three years ago, he was there on Twitter wearing a No. 7 jersey, Colin Kaepernick’s number, with “#IMwithKap” written above it. The old man smiled. He didn’t attend Kaepernick’s fight because he hadn’t seen a fight like this in over 60 years.

Russell wrote something else in “Go Up For Glory”:

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“It’s a story that can be read on three levels.

“The Story of an American.

“The Story of a Negro.

“The story of a professional basketball player.

“On every level, I can only say that these are simple truths. Anyway, there will never be an alibi.

There has never been one, on or off the field. But then he’s one of those rare athletes, one of sport’s rare gifts, who seemed just as important after the game was over, as his friend Muhammad Ali did, as Billie Jean King did. , as Jackie Robinson did.

Bill Russell. Man.


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