Hear me out.
Russell’s grandfather, whom he referred to as “the Old Man,” never saw a basketball game until 1967, a dozen years into his grandson’s career. Finally, at an exhibition game in Louisiana, where Russell was born, the Old Man came to watch the Celtics, who by then were led by Russell as a player-coach, against the Hawks. Who won or lost the game was irrelevant to either team’s record or to what happened off the court that day. The Old Man marveled at all the Celtics’ players, white and black, following the orders given to them by his grandson, and he was stunned not to find “whites only” bathrooms and drinking fountains in the arena.
After the game, the Old Man wandered around the locker room as the players undressed. Suddenly, he stopped, stared into the showers and began to cry. As Russell started to panic, he followed the Old Man’s gaze, which was fixed upon John Havlicek and Sam Jones nonchalantly chatting while they scrubbed.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day,” the Old Man said, “when water would run off a black man onto a white man.”
With Russell celebrating his 79th birthday on Tuesday, there is no better excuse to celebrate a man who provided a bridge from Jim Crow to an era when black athletes were accepted– begrudgingly, anyway — as having a social conscience. Every day should be an appreciation of the most influential man to ever lace up a pair of sneakers in the NBA, and the model he provided not just to fellow players, athletes or blacks, but as a human being of conviction.
Set aside the 11 championships and five NBA Most Valuable Player awards that any self-respecting fan should already know all about. Russell’s success on the court simply gave him the platform to express his views, which to him were far more important than the things he did with a round piece of orange leather. Today he is almost universally revered as one of the greatest winners in sports history and a grand old man who garners audiences with the president, but for most of Russell’s public life he was a polarizing figure. He fiercely opposed racial discrimination with his actions as well as his words, taking a step farther the efforts made just a few years earlier by Jackie Robinson — who counted the Celtics center as one of the people he most admired.
Then, as now, athletes who ventured into the political or social realm risked being told to “stick to sports.” Yet Russell was not so easy to dismiss. As Stan Isaacs wrote, Russell was “more than a pop-off.” When Russell attended sporting events with his more militant friends, he would respectfully stand during the national anthem while they sat in protest.
At the same time, he was part of the complicated interplay among Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, socially aware athletes who were not always in full agreement on the issues. While Brown had misgivings about Ali and Abdul-Jabbar’s conversions to Islam, for instance, fearing that the boxer in particular was being exploited by the Black Muslims for political gain, Russell backed the younger men’s efforts. In Russell’s mind, their statements exposed the public to a different perspective, at the very least.
“For a great number of years, colored athletes and entertainers put up with these conditions because we figured they’d see we were nice people, mostly, and in most cases gentlemen,” Russell once said. “They’d say, ‘Those people aren’t so bad.’ But it was the greatest mistake we ever made, because as long as you go along with it, everybody assumes it’s the status quo.”
Had Russell focused solely on racial injustice, he would still have carried weight. Yet he challenged social injustice everywhere, even while possessing a rather 1950s-style view of women. He provided one of the best summations of the problem with collegiate athletics, writing that “being an amateur is like being a virgin. It is an old idea that has some innocence and charm, celebrated mostly by people to whom it doesn’t apply. It doesn’t look as good on old people as on young ones. It is impossible to keep partially, though many try to do so. It is associated with deception and pretense. And even if the you love the idea, you still can’t help being suspicious when you see the pious members of the U.S. Chastity Committee charging the public money to peep at their soiled virgins.”
As the NBA moves into its fifth decade since his retirement, Russell unfortunately has been reduced in many ways to “just” those 11 titles. His infectious cackle, his adamant defense of his good friend and much-maligned rival Wilt Chamberlain and his social activism have been buried underneath a pile of jewelry. Even his relatively modest scoring average of 15.1 points per game has led some to assume he was not a dominant individual player. Michael Jordan has less than half as many rings and the same number of MVP trophies, while Larry Bird and Magic Johnson have fewer titles and only one more MVP award combined, yet Russell is often left out when those players are talked about in the discussion of the all-time great individual players.
Russell very much belongs in the discussion, though, and all that needs to be presented as evidence are some of the glowing things said about him by his peers.
“Forget the stories of magic leprechauns in the rafters of Boston Garden and how the cramped visitors’ dressing room and psychological games created some sort of Celtics’ mystique,” Oscar Robertson observed. “No matter how good the players surrounding him were, no matter how competitive his coach was, Bill Russell was the Celtics’ mystique.”
“He was the greatest,” admired Knicks center Willis Reed, who would get anxious before All-Star games about letting down his East teammate. Russell’s teammates never wanted to let him down — not even in All-Star games.
“Bill’s the most valuable player in the history of the game,” legendary Sixers coach Alex Hannum said. “He’s proved the unheralded parts of the game, defense and rebounding, really are as important as shooting and playmaking.”
“He wasn’t meek,” said Nate Thurmond, one of the many big men who battled in vain against Russell. “He was a man.”
He was more than that. He was the man, and at 79 years young, he still is.
Photo via Facebook/Bill Russell Legacy Project