When Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell was only 13 years old. That event stayed with Russell throughout his basketball career, and Russell even got the chance to meet Robinson early on.
That meeting was pivotal, Russell told Melissa Harris-Perry on her television show.
“That was one of the few times I could hardly speak, I was so overcome with the honor of spending half a day with him,” Russell said, “because when I was a kid, he was the hero.”
But it wasn’t just Russell who regarded Robinson with reverence. Robinson was inspired by the basketball player also.
After Robinson died, his widow, Rachel Robinson, called Russell to ask if be would be a pallbearer at the funeral.
“I was really surprised and said, ‘Of course,'” Russell said. “‘I would be honored to do that.’ I asked her why, and she said ‘You were his favorite athlete,’ and I was overwhelmed by that.”
Russell recounted the profound affect Robinson’s pioneering efforts had on his own professional career.
“Jackie was the first,” he said. “And when I started my professional career, I was not going to revisit from A to B. I was going to go from B to C. That’s why I was determined to go further in basketball than he did in baseball.”
The former Celtics big man did take Robinson’s legacy a step further. Russell became the first African-American head coach in the NBA when Red Auerbach named him player-coach of the Celtics in 1966. Russell later served stints as coach of the Seattle Supersonics and the Sacramento Kings.
“One of my high school teammates was the first black manager in baseball, Frankie Robinson,” Russell said. “We were both determined to take what Jackie laid out for us, to proceed with it. One of the greatest honors I ever had was to be at his funeral because I had so much respect and regard for him.”
Robinson left a legacy that is bigger than the sport of baseball, it pervades throughout professional sports. To honor the pioneer, major league baseball players will all wear Robinson’s signature No. 42 on their jerseys on Monday, when the league celebrates the anniversary of Robinson breaking the color line.
Photo via Facebook/Jackie Robinson