The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bill Russell made America better by demanding better from America

Boston Celtics' legend Bill Russell wore his Presidential Medal of Freedom during the 2011 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

Five years ago, at an NBA awards ceremony, Bill Russell walked onto a stage graced with legendary giants. Behind him stood Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson and Dikembe Mutombo. Russell stepped to the microphone, turned and pointed his index finger at all five, one by one. Then he cupped his left hand next to his face to share a special message.

“I would kick your a--,” basketball’s greatest winner told them.

The room erupted. All those regal big men laughed, but they didn’t dare argue. Russell saved the grandest reaction for last, filling the air with his signature high-pitched cackle. It was the final time a huge national audience got to hear that cackle.

My God, we’re going to miss that cackle.

One of the most important lives in the history of sport and celebrity ended Sunday. Russell died at 88, leaving behind a sprawling legacy of greatness as a player, coach, civil rights activist and humanitarian. While it is fair to debate whether better individual basketball players have taken the court, Russell is an incomparable figure after factoring in team success at all levels (high school, college, Olympics and the NBA), leadership, adaptability, mental strength and societal impact off the floor. He was a star who did the dirty work, a defensive savant who led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships by excelling at whatever winning required. And he was a star who did the important work, a disrupter who demanded better from America and confronted racism without fear or fatigue.

Bill Russell, an 11-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics and the first Black head coach in a major American sports league, died July 31. He was 88. (Video: Reuters)

He was a fully dimensional Black athlete more than a half century before it was okay to be one. In the 1960s, vandals broke into his house in the Boston suburbs, scrawled hatred on the walls and left feces in his bed. But there was no intimidating Russell. On the court, he went head to head with Wilt Chamberlain, a towering rival who, at 7-foot-1 and 275 pounds, was four inches taller and 60 pounds heavier than Russell. Still, Russell’s Celtics dominated the postseason matchups against Chamberlain’s teams. Though Chamberlain was an unstoppable force, Russell bested him with savvy, gamesmanship and his advanced understanding of the nuances of team play. He was just as astute in real life, too.

Feinstein: Bill Russell was the greatest winner any sport has ever seen

“Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “At the height of his athletic career, Bill advocated vigorously for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed down to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps. Through the taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill rose above it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.”

Silver liked to refer to Russell as “basketball’s Babe Ruth for how he transcended time.” Russell and Chamberlain were among the pioneers in transforming the game into a more vertical show, one in which tall men with astounding leaping ability did unimaginable things in the air. Russell reserved most of his athleticism for practical purposes: rebounding and blocking shots. He combined his physical skill with his mind, studying the manner in which errant shots ricocheted off the rim and developing strategies for when and how to block shots.

There was artistry and calculation in everything Russell did. Sometimes, early in games, he would seemingly come from nowhere and reject shots well into the crowd to terrify opponents. Mostly, though, he was a master at self-control while blocking shots, preferring to tap the ball to himself or a teammate so that the Celtics could gain possession. He knew that keeping the ball inbounds was more beneficial than the thrill of swatting it as far as he could. It actually added to the fear factor when an offensive player had to consider that a shot in the vicinity of Russell could function the same as a turnover.

In paying his respects Sunday, Michael Jordan said of Russell, “He paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him, including me.” When Russell retired from the NBA in 1969, Jordan was 6. Abdul-Jabbar was about to enter the league the next season. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were 10 years from beginning their rivalry in the NCAA championship game. His heyday with Red Auerbach and Boston’s all-star cast was so long ago, and recency bias has diminished some appreciation of the enormity of his influence. But considering all that the NBA — and sports in general — has become, Russell belongs among a handful of the most significant athletic icons ever to walk the planet.

He was a defining sports figure during a defining time in American history, speaking up during the same era in which Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown and Abdul-Jabbar refused to stay silent. Russell was 13 when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, and he used Robinson’s example as a blueprint for his career. When Robinson died, Russell was a pallbearer at his funeral. On July 19, Russell wrote his last message on Twitter, wishing Robinson’s widow, Rachel, a happy 100th birthday.

Bill Russell remembered as a ‘pioneer’ on and off the court

Eleven years ago, when President Barack Obama awarded Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he reflected on the big man’s legacy.

“Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men,” Obama said during the ceremony. “He marched with King; he stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players and made possible the success of so many who would follow.”

There’s an old video in which Russell tells the story of playing golf with Jordan and playfully arguing with him the summer after the Chicago Bulls had won one of their six titles.

“You know we’re going to go after your record,” Jordan told Russell.

“Which one?” Russell shot back.

Russell continued: “You know, we won 11, but we won eight straight. I don’t think you’ll live long enough to get either one of those.”

Jordan reminded Russell that the NBA had only eight teams for most of the center’s career and had expanded to just 12 by the end. Different from a 30-team league, Jordan said. His Airness thought he had him. But Russell was just getting started. He offered an argument about expansion and dilution.

“Think about it this way,” Russell remembered saying to him. “When I was a rookie, there were 80 jobs in professional basketball, so a lot of good players didn’t make it. If there were 12 teams, you wouldn’t win a championship. You did a great job penetrating and you dished out to [John] Paxson, and he hit the open shot, won the game. If there were 12 teams in the league, he couldn’t make that shot. He said, ‘Why not?’ Because he would be up in the stands. And that is not a knock on him, but it’s about the quality of the NBA.”

That was Bill Russell: smart, agile, resolute. When he fought for championships and equality as a player, he was often considered aloof, even ornery. But just when society thought it had him pegged, he would say something funny and let out that booming cackle.

People had to laugh, too, even if the joke was on them. And it usually was. There was no beating Russell, on the court or in any of life’s arenas. It was best to help him find joy because he had a way of making it infectious.