Far More Than a Great Basketball Player 

Monday, August 1st, 2022

In a tweet announcing his passing at age 88, Bill Russell’s family labeled him as the most prolific winner in American sports history. With 2 NCAA championships, an Olympic gold medal, and 11 NBA titles, that’s awfully hard to argue with.1 He also never lost a winner-take-all game, in 21 (or 22!) chances.

Yet what Russell did off the court was even more important. He broke barriers and battled racism in Boston and around America, furthering the cause of human rights. In 2011, President Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor:

“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 stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players and made possible the success of so many who would follow.”

WBUR has a great look at Russell’s life, which includes this quip:

In 2013, the city of Boston installed a statue at City Hall honoring Russell. It was the kind of lionization that he had often avoided.

“Two things about statues,” Russell said at a ceremony unveiling the bronze sculpture shaped in his likeness. “First, they remind me of tombstones. And second, [it’s] something that pigeons’ll crap on.”

That’s a hilarious thing to say, but doubly so at the unveiling ceremony. So, why did he agree to be there?

Russell said that he only agreed to endorse the statue after former Mayor Tom Menino promised to create a mentoring program in the city.

That is some kind of selflessness.

As my pal John Gruber noted, we happened to see Russell out in San Francisco back in 2016:

As this follow-up tweet showed, Bill Russell was just like the rest of us, putzing on his iPhone. The difference is that he did it while in possession of a legacy about which the rest of us can’t even dream.


Footnotes:

  1. I’ve seen a lot of commentary questioning how Bill Russell would’ve fared in the more modern NBA (an offensive-focused league his dominating defense helped create). Allow this zinger from Russell to serve as response. ↩︎


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