ABOVE: President Barack Obama awards Russell with the presidential medal of freedom in 2011. The medal is the nation’s highest civilian award.
When Bill Russell passed away last weekend at the age of 88, America lost not only a champion but a hero, a star who lit the way for others to follow.
Bill Russell supported Muhammad Ali when he resisted the draft on religious grounds. He stood with me as we opened PUSH in Chicago in 1971. Russell followed in the footsteps of baseball’s Jackie Robinson, whom he admired and emulated.
Russell was, without a doubt, not just one of the greatest basketball players of all time, but surely the greatest champion of team sports generally. He transformed the game of basketball as much with his intelligence as with his phenomenal athletic skills. Although a California high school star in Oakland, California, he received only one college offer – from the University of San Francisco, a small Jesuit school. He proceeded to lead them to a stunning 55 straight victories and two national championships. He then helped the U.S. team win an Olympic gold medal in the 1956 Olympic Games.
Drafted by the St. Louis Hawks, he was traded immediately to the Boston Celtics. In a 13-year career, he led the Celtics to 11 national championships, and was named an NBA All-Star 12 times, and Most Valuable Player five times. He succeeded the legendary Red Auerbach as the Celtics coach, becoming the first Black coach of an American professional athletic team. He silenced the legions of doubters by winning two NBA titles as a player-coach.
Russell excelled not in individual statistics but in making his team better. He made defense – blocked shots, steals, defensive rebounds – his forte, his outlet passes triggering the Celtics lethal fast break. Boston unveiled a statue of Russell in its City Hall Plaza in 2013 (Russell agreed to allow it only in exchange for an official pledge to fund a program to mentor youth). The inscription is testament to his philosophy: “The most important measure of how good a game I’d played was how much better I’d made my teammates play.” Russell averaged a stunning 22 rebounds a game over the course of his career, but individual statistics didn’t impress him. “I determined early in my career,” he said, “the most important statistic in basketball is the final score.”
That understanding of what is important made him not simply a champion but a hero. People raise champions on their shoulders. A hero raises people on his or her shoulders. Russell was a leader, using his stature to lift others, even at great risk to himself.
He was born in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1934 into the violence of the apartheid South (between 1888 and 1936 there were 4,673 lynchings in the South — 389 in Louisiana, 10 in the years around Russell’s birth from 1933 to 1935). When he was 9, his family moved to Oakland, California, where he grew up living in public housing. He led the Celtics in an era when Boston was torn apart by racial hatred.
The fans that cheered Russell on the basketball court didn’t want him to live in their neighborhood. In the 1960s, vandals broke into his house in the Boston suburbs, scrawling venom on the wall, leaving feces in his bed. Russell once called Boston a “flea market of racism,” but he was not intimidated.
As a young star in 1958, he challenged the NBA for using a quota system to limit the number of Black players on each team. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to protest segregation and joined him for the famous 1963 March on Washington. When Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, Russell agreed to run a youth basketball camp in the city, bringing white and Black children together. Ignoring death threats, he went through with the plan. When a restaurant in the South refused to serve the Black players on the Celtics, Russell refused to play in the game.
As NBA Commissioner Adam Silver summarized in a statement:
“At the height of his athletic career, Bill advocated vigorously for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed down to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps. Through the taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill rose above it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.”
Russell was a favorite of those who played with and against him. He was known for his biting wit and famed for his iconic laugh – a high-pitched cackle that could lift a room. When the greatest big men of basketball – Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning – gathered to honor him, he pointed his finger at each one, and, in a stage whisper, told them “I would kick your a___.” The room exploded in laughter and joy, for a man who led on and off the court, a champion and a hero. He will be missed.
When champions win, people put them on their shoulders.
Bill was a hero; people rode his shoulders. He used his voice on and off the court. He is an example for athletes of this generation of the strengths they can have on and off the court.