A tribute to Bill Russell and the chain that connects the NBA to our own history

Not only did the world’s greatest sports champion and civil rights leader lose out on Sunday, when Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell passed away at the age of 88. We have lost a touchstone in our history that can never be replaced.

The NBA is different from most organizations in how it embraces the greats who built it. Only Pete Maravich had passed when the league honored the 50th Anniversary team in 1997, and the 47-year-old attended the ceremony. 45 of the 61 members present were present at the team’s 75th anniversary celebration in February, two years after the outbreak of a global pandemic. These giants are among us, and we don’t appreciate them enough.

Russell was unique. He entered the NBA in 1956 and won 11 of the next 13 championships. He was the first black league star and the first black coach on any North American professional team. A childhood friend of Johnny Mattis, he was a guest of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in March in Washington and a casket bearer at Jackie Robinson’s funeral. He attended the Cleveland Summit in support of Muhammad Ali’s protest in the Vietnam War in 1967 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2011.

He was only here yesterday, living long enough to see his life’s work completed. The same city where racism showered him during his playing career showered him with a standing ovation nearly 50 years later.

“Today, we lost a giant,” Obama wrote on Twitter on Sunday. The country’s first black president added, “For decades, Bill has endured insults and vandalism, but that hasn’t stopped him from speaking out what’s right. I’ve learned so much from the way he plays, the way he coaches, and the way he lives his life.”

A statue of Russell is now located outside Boston City Hall, steps away from where civil rights attorney Ted Landsmark was nearly killed by a group of white teens protesting the city’s first attempt to desegregate its schools. This honor was only accepted when the Celtics team agreed to fund an annual grant for local mentor programs.

“There are no more children in the United States,” the statue’s inscription read, echoing the words of mentoring wisdom he wrote for Harvard Business Review. “There is only a new generation of Americans.”

Few have done more for their generation than Russell, whose public life has spanned 13 US presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Joe Biden, and we are better for it. Imagine our impact if we could get close to it.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) picked its Finals MVP award for Russell in 2009, and he was on hand to present it every year until 2019, when fears over COVID-19 prompted him to congratulate the annual winners in videos he posted on Twitter.

His relationships extended to 2022 award-winner Stephen Curry, among the distinguished few that Russell grilled and reminded them, “I just give the men I really love a hard time.” When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Morning and Shaquille O’Neal presented him with the inaugural NBA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, Russell pointed to each of the five centers whose careers spanned the 42 years of his retirement and told them with that chattering laugh The memorable, “I’m going to kick your ass.”

Julius Irving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, and Bill Russell attended the 2018 NBA All-Star Game together in Los Angeles. (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star News via Getty Images)

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’re going to live long enough” to break his own record of 11 titles and eight straight.

What makes the NBA so special are these bonds that have been forged through generations, and that still have members with us. Bob Pettit, 89, attended the team’s 75th anniversary celebration in Cleveland.

“Let me tell you, anyone who says it’s not good to be remembered is lying,” Pettit, who remains a New Orleans Pelicans season ticket holder, told NBA.com’s Steve Ashburner. “He’s so cute. So I’m very happy to be one of the 75, as I had the pleasure of being one of the 25 and one of the 50. I may not be around for 100.”

Kevin Garnett, to whom Russell once said, “I can’t be more proud of you than my children,” says “everyone has a vet”—someone who takes you under their wing until you’re ready to travel on your own. Sam Mitchell was his. It was Rajon Rondo. Rondo is Darius Garland. Four players, 33 years old and the number is increasing. The League is now in its ninth decade of mentorship, and Russell was the greatest of them all.

Having Russell in our lives until Sunday was a reminder of how relatively young the NBA is and how long some of the scars of its past can still be. Russell led a strike when, in 1961, a Kentucky restaurant told his Celtics teammates Sam Jones and Satch Sanders, “We can’t really serve you people.” Half a century later, it was Russell kneeling In support of a one-time Super Bowl start with the heart of quarterback Colin Kaepernick when the nation’s current president was still pleading with NFL owners to “get that son of a bitch off the field right now.”

When Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee Bucks chose to sit in Game 5 of the first-round qualifier series in protest of the August 2020 shooting of Jacob Blake, Russell was there to support them.

Through Russell we were able to see our history, dirty and wonderful. It was a beacon.

You couldn’t see Cy Young sitting with Clayton Kershaw or Georges Vezina hobnob with Marc-Andre Fleury, but Bill Russell was friends with every star who followed him, and they hugged him again. As the NFL, MLB, and NHL engage in tumultuous PR with legends Tom Brady, Barry Bonds, and Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan is a member of the NBA’s Board of Governors, and will be joined by LeBron James in retirement.

That is why the death of Kobe Bryant hit the basketball world so hard two years ago. The Los Angeles Lakers link that tied Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, O’Neal, Bryant and James over five decades of fan base, broke and we couldn’t get it back. There would be no 84-year-old Bryant cheering the Lakers 2062-63 from the sidelines, as Russell did at that age with his Celtics side in the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals.

The deaths of Lynne Byaz and Reggie Lewis also disrupted the passage of the torch from Russell, John Havlicek, Dave Queens, and Larry Bird to Paul Pearce and now Jason Tatum. But Russell connected them all, in the same way that Abdul-Jabbar is still present in our lives and we regularly share wisdom in our Substack newsletter.

“There is so much truth, love, and respect in my 60-year relationship with Bill Russell that I would like to share so the world can recognize him, not just as one of the greatest basketball players ever, but as a man who taught me how to be bigger – as a player and as a man,” he wrote. Abdul-Jabbar on Monday, adding, “He’s kept calling me baby since our first meeting when I was 14. I think that was a good—a likable way to remind me that he was there first and I will always follow him in his giant strides.”

The start of this NBA series now leaves us. Until Tommy Heinsohn’s death in November 2020, you can still find him before games in the TD Garden’s media dining area, where he explains how Russell would have dominated the NBA today. Sam, KC Jones and Havlicek are also gone. Only Sanders and Bob Causey remain among the Hall of Fame who built the Celtics into Dynasty and the NBA into Giant.

Sach always says, ‘Don’t look over your shoulder. You’ll see them win you over,” 93-year-old Cozy told The Boston Globe, upon learning of Russell’s death. “So I’m more aware of that every time the phone rings and I get news like this. But I am a real person. I’m ready for the big basketball court in the sky.”

It will only grow in the coming years, as we continue to lose these giants among us. Just one more reason to appreciate Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, and the NBA stops of our history while we can.

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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him to rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach


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