When current Celtics big man Kevin Garnett heard the good news about former Celtics big man Bill Russell — he was awarded the Medal of Freedom on Tuesday afternoon, one of 15 people recognized by President Barack Obama — KG had nothing but praise for the C's aging legend.
"When I think of Russell, I think of transcendency," Garnett said Tuesday. "If you take Bill Russell out of history, then a lot of us are not even here. Not only did he transcend on the court, but off the court, being righteous for what he believed in, speaking up and standing up for that right.
"It was different times back in the day, man. I respect a lot of the [past players] just for what they went through so we could be here today. Bill Russell is everything, and I just want to say congratulations."
Russell was one of the early pioneers for civil rights in American sports — while he was busy winning 11 championships in 13 seasons with the Celtics, he also fought to put black athletes on equal footing with whites in Boston and around the nation.
Garnett lauded Russell and noted that not many of today's athletes have that same ambition off the court.
"I don't think a lot of players take a political stand when it comes to the world," he said. "I think when athletes speak, the majority speak of them speak on their sport, or on what's going on with themselves or their team.
"I don't think people are as opinionated out loud, just because of the uproar they could start. These days, when you bring up issues that bring attention to yourself or your team, it can be labeled as a distraction. Obviously the world is a little different."
Garnett is an avid student of the game, and he recalled learning about the social activism of NBA players from Russell's era.
"I remember hearing a story of when they got tired of staying in some of the crappy hotels, and Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain and some of the older players took a stand," he said. "I don't think you have a lot of that these days. I don't want to say players are not united, but I don't think we go to extremes to prove a point."