Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 31, 2022

The Legacy Of A Legend

The first thought, when the smartphone lit up on Sunday with the unwelcome news of Bill Russell’s passing, was not of the eleven Boston Celtics championships or the 21,620 rebounds or any of the other basketball legend’s statistics.  It was, instead, of his laugh.  Russell had a laugh worthy of the 6 foot 10 inch, 220 pound frame of his playing days.  It was big and loud, rich and rolling.  It came from his gut and could overwhelm a conversation.  When Russell found something amusing, and he often did during interviews and public appearances, everyone within earshot knew it.  In his prime, Russell would often throw up in the locker room before games.  He once explained the ritual to an interviewer as “a way for my body to get rid of all excesses.” Teammate John Havlicek remembered it as a “tremendous sound,” but allowed that it was only “almost” as loud as Russell’s laugh.

Still, that singular expression of happiness might seem an odd thing to recall when confronted with the sad news of his death at the age of 88, even before any of Russell’s on-court exploits.  But to this writer, the laugh symbolized Russell’s larger greatness as a human being.  For only a truly extraordinary person could so readily find joy in a world which presented so many examples of hate.  Had Russell become an angry and embittered former star, advancing over the years into an increasingly meanspirited old age, it would easily have been attributable to the racism he faced both growing up and while playing in the NBA.  That he refused such an easy road and instead walked the far more difficult one of unwavering commitment to the power of reason and the cause of social justice is Russell’s most powerful legacy, one that extends far beyond the boundaries of the parquet floor at the old Boston Garden.

Of course, he was also a pretty damn good basketball player.  Before he was chosen by the St. Louis Hawks with the second pick in the 1956 NBA Draft, Russell won a pair of California state championships at Oakland’s McClymonds High School.  Passed over by the major college powers, he accepted a scholarship offer from the across the bay and went on to lead the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA titles in his junior and senior years, a run that included 55 straight victories.  Russell then captained the U.S. men’s team to a gold medal at that year’s Summer Olympics, held in Melbourne in late November, before reporting to the NBA.  When he finally did so, it was to Boston, not St. Louis, for the Hawks had drafted him as part of a prearranged trade deal with the Celtics, who coveted Russell’s defensive skills.

His Olympic commitment meant the Celtics were a third of the way into the 1956-57 NBA schedule by the time Russell joined the team.  But he immediately moved into a starting role, and just as quickly began to remake the position of center.  Long the province of slow-moving big men, Russell brought quickness and agility to the role.  His rebounding and especially his shot blocking were crucial to a team that had been weak defensively for several years, with Russell instigating turnovers that led to repeated fast breaks by the Celtics offense.  That in turn morphed into Boston’s “Hey Bill” defense, in which a teammate about to be beat would issue that two word call for help, and Russell would fly from the paint to wherever he was needed, setting up a quick double-team.  The Celtics won the first championship in franchise history that season, sweeping Syracuse (now the Philadelphia 76ers) in the first round of the playoffs before outlasting St. Louis (now the Atlanta Hawks) four games to three in the Finals.

It would not, as every fan knows, be their last.  Boston advanced to the NBA Finals ten straight seasons, and after falling to St. Louis in 1958, claimed the league title each of the next eight years.  Prior to the 1966-67 season head coach Red Auerbach moved into a full-time front office role, naming Russell as his successor on the bench.  With their longtime center now the first Black head coach in a major American sports league, Boston won two more championships in the next three years.

But the familiar accounts of those glory years usually gloss over the ugliness that was very much a part of that time.  When Russell joined the team in 1956, his was the only black face in the team photograph.  That didn’t make the Celtics dramatically different than most NBA teams, and Russell heard all manner of vile taunts while playing on the road.  But not just on the road.  There were far too many Celtics fans who, while glad to see their team winning, were more than willing to voice their views about Russell as a person.  After his rookie season Russell settled with his family in suburban Reading, where the local police regularly followed him through town.  Years and multiple championships later, his home was vandalized by intruders who spray painted racist slurs on the walls.

Such treatment was hardly new to Russell.  He was born in Louisiana and carried memories of racist treatment of both his parents with him throughout his life.  After the family migrated west to Oakland, the only employment his father could initially find was as a janitor, because it was a “negro job.”   While at USF, Russell and his other black teammates were denied admission to the team’s Oklahoma City hotel while playing in a college tournament.  It was a moment that was repeated several years later, when black Celtics players were denied service at a Kentucky restaurant while on the road for an exhibition game. On that college road trip, Russell and the rest of the San Francisco Dons left the hotel and camped out in an empty college dorm, turning the racist incident into a bonding experience.  In Kentucky, the Celtics center led his Black teammates out of town, boycotting the exhibition game. 

But Russell never limited his actions to defending just his own rights.  In 1967, when Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the military, those supporting him were themselves subjected to threats of violence.  But Russell was unfazed, joining football star Jim Brown, fellow NBA center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a handful of other Black athletes in support of Ali at a meeting that came to be known as the Cleveland Summit.  Half a century later, when Colin Kaepernick and other athletes were being vilified for taking a knee during the national anthem, Russell used a more modern means of expression, tweeting a picture of himself kneeling while wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom he had been awarded in 2010.  He added the caption “proud to take a knee, and to stand tall against social injustice,” and later told ESPN he wanted the athletes to know they were not alone.

Bill Russell’s gloriously loud and engaging laugh is silent now.  If our world is a bit quieter, it is also diminished.  But the struggle continues, as Russell surely knew it would long after his role in it was over.  His record of greatness on the basketball court will be celebrated in the next few days.  But his far more important legacy will be forever honored by all those who dare to act up and speak up, countering mindless hate with reason and rectitude in the unending fight for social justice. 

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