On the afternoon of February 15, 2011, Bill Russell sat on a stage in the East Room of the White House, preparing to be celebrated for a lifetime of triumph. He was there to pick up the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Barack Obama, America’s first Black president and emcee of the event, was relaying Russell’s accomplishments: how he led the University of San Francisco Dons to two national titles in the 1950s and how he famously spearheaded the Celtics’ run of 11 titles in 13 years. “A record unmatched,” Obama proclaimed of the Boston dynasty, “in any sport.”
Then, the president’s tone became serious as he began to describe how Russell’s lanky 6-foot-10 frame would often prompt onlookers to ask if he was a basketball player. “No,” Obama said from the podium, paraphrasing Russell’s typical response to such questions. “That’s what I do, that’s not what I am. I’m not a basketball player, I’m a man who plays basketball.”
On Sunday morning, Russell’s family announced that the winningest man in professional sports had died at age 88. For nearly a century, Russell’s life was defined by a mission statement to find worth beyond the hardwood. A child of America’s racist fabric, he spoke out about the injustices he and his people faced, in a time when being more than an athlete could be a matter of life and death. His title count validates his standing among the best athletes of his generation, yet his off-court activism made him bigger than the game he dominated.
Russell was born in northern Louisiana in 1934 to Charles and Katie but left eight years later when his parents moved west to escape rampant racism and the threat of being lynched, settling in West Oakland, California, near the port, where his father found a job on the docks. When Bill was 12, Katie died, but not before making her children promise they’d attend college. But basketball didn’t seem like Bill’s ticket out when he was a junior at McClymonds High School. Though his athleticism was unquestioned (his broad jump reached 24 feet), he was cut from the junior varsity team. The next day, George Powles, McClymonds’s varsity basketball coach and Russell’s homeroom teacher, extended a spot on the varsity team and purchased Russell a yearlong membership to a local community center. That act of kindness ignited something in Russell, and his work ethic would become the stuff of legend. In college, Russell would be required to make 500 hook shots each with his left and right hand before leaving practice.
Russell’s undertaking bore fruit a few years later at USF, when he led the Dons to back-to-back national titles. In Boston, he brought larger returns, transforming the Celtics into an unrivaled dynasty. In his 13 years with the franchise, he won five MVPs and earned 12 All-Star appearances, even though he never led his team in scoring. An ancillary example of his dominance was his play against Wilt Chamberlain, his best friend, biggest rival, and the most prolific scorer to walk the planet. Though Chamberlain outscored and outrebounded Russell in their head-to-head matchups, Russell’s Celtics beat Chamberlain more than 60 percent of the time, including in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals, when the underdog Celtics, led by player-coach Bill Russell, stunned a Lakers team featuring Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor to prevail in Russell’s final professional game. By the 1970s, the Celtics were the league’s winningest franchise thanks to Russell’s guidance, but no matter how cluttered his trophy case got, the game never fulfilled the big man.
“I don’t consider anything I have done,” he once said, “as contributing to society. I consider playing professional basketball as marking time, the most shallow thing in the world.”
All the while, Russell’s life was marked by instances of racism. When he barnstormed with other NBA All-Stars during the summer months to make extra cash, hotel owners denied rooms to Russell and his Black teammates. One day, while Russell and his family were out of town on a weekend trip, burglars broke into Russell’s Boston-area home, smashed his trophies, spray-painted the N-word on the walls, and defecated on his bed. The incident shattered Russell’s relationship with the city, and he became aloof to fans and media alike. “They say I owe the public this and I owe the public that,” he said in 1963, further angering the Celtics fan base. “What I owe the public is the best performance I can give, period. If someone asks me for an autograph, I think it’s a waste but I sign them occasionally. Sometimes I just feel like being nice, or it gets rid of them.” He insisted on a private jersey retirement ceremony at the Boston Garden in 1972 and rarely visited the city after that.
‘’I played for the Celtics, period,’’ Russell once told his daughter Karen. ‘’I did not play for Boston. I was able to separate the Celtics institution from the city and the fans.”
Russell was a staunch civil rights leader. Of the 250,000 people who flooded the National Mall on August 28, 1963, for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Russell was in the front row. He was a pallbearer at Jackie Robinson’s funeral in 1972. And when Muhammad Ali declined to participate in the Vietnam War, Russell, with the help of NFL star Jim Brown, organized a meeting dubbed the “Cleveland Summit” to offer support for the boxer. His example inspired millions for generations to come, including the man tasked with giving Russell the highest civilian honor in 2011.
“He said, ‘Thanks for the inspiration,’” Russell said of Obama. “He said I was one of the reasons he was able to become president.”
In the years after Russell’s White House visit, America was failing to live up to its constitutional promise. Police were killing Black civilians on camera, prompting the largest civil rights uprising since the 1960s. All across the country, athletes began to kneel in protest of racial injustice, starting with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The demonstrations were similar to the protests Russell had witnessed during his professional career. In 2017, Russell tweeted a picture of himself kneeling in solidarity with Kaepernick and other athletes, while wearing the Medal of Freedom around his neck.
“Proud to take a knee,” the tweet read. “And to stand tall against social injustice.”
Proud to take a knee, and to stand tall against social injustice." #takeaknee #medaloffreedom #NFL #BillRussell #MSNBC pic.twitter.com/1MhinoAcW7— TheBillRussell (@RealBillRussell) September 25, 2017
The first and only time I encountered Bill Russell was in the spring of 2013. He was at Oracle Arena, hours removed from a rare appearance at McClymonds, where he was being added to the school’s Wall of Champions. He spent 90 minutes with the school’s basketball team, answering questions and reflecting on the distinction being bestowed. “You have no idea what an honor it is,” he told the students. “It’s one of the highest honors I’ve ever had.” By nightfall, he was courtside near the scorer’s table at Oracle Arena, sitting next to West, one of his former rivals, watching the Kings eke out a surprising win over Golden State. During a time-out, Russell appeared on the jumbotron, prompting every soul in the building to stand up and pay their respects. On a court occupied by Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry, Russell was the biggest attraction. This scene mirrored most of Russell’s appearances during the final years of his life. Stars flocked to him during All-Star games or when he was in town to present the Finals MVP award that bears his name.
Russell’s presence will live long past his physical form. It’s evoked when LeBron James speaks out against oppression or when the Milwaukee Bucks shut down the league after another act of police violence against Black people. All of the fights Russell endured have been validated, and with the legacy he’s left behind, a road map to progress has been erected.