In 2011, then-President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to Celtics great Bill Russell.
The Medal of Freedom is an award that, by definition, “goes to a person who has made a particularly meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural, or other significant public or private efforts.” Few professional athletes, of course, have made a more meritorious contribution to culture through professional sports than Bill Russell, which made his honor particularly poignant in 2011.
Bill Russell lived life like very few people
Read Celtics’ statement on Bill Russell’s death
In his commentsObama noted that people sometimes approached Russell and asked the 6-foot-9 trim man if he was a basketball player.
“Amazingly, they get it a lot more than you think,” Obama quipped.
However, Russell’s answer was always “no”. He was a basketball player. Basketball was what he did, not who he was.
Obama said at the time, “Bill Russell the man is the man who has stood up for the rights and dignity of all men.” “They marched along [Martin Luther] King. he stood [Muhammad] Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve Black Celtics, it refused to play in the scheduled game. He tolerated humiliation and vandalism, but he focused on making the teammates he loved better players and making possible the success of so many who would follow.
“I hope that one day in the streets of Greeley Tribune, children will see a statue not only made for player Bill Russell, but Bill Russell the Man.”
Two years later in 2013, the statue was erected, meaning that for the last nine years of his life, children in Greeley Tribune saw a memorial to Russell—a man who was a basketball player. Shortly before the statue’s unveiling, Obama got a glimpse with Russell – a moment that was documented by photographer Pete Souza.
Russell died on Sunday. Obama sent A tweet thread.
Obama wrote, ‘Today we lost a veteran. “As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy as a player and as a person goes up a lot.”
Again, Obama noted Russell’s record of activism—that he marched with the likes of King and Ali.
“For decades, Bill tolerated humiliation and vandalism, but that never stopped him from speaking up for what is right,” Obama wrote. “I learned a lot from the way he played, the way he coached and the way he lived his life. Michelle and I send our love to Bill’s family and everyone who admires him. ,
Other political figures and activists reached out via social media to offer memories of Russell, including Bernice King – Martin Luther King’s youngest daughter – as well as Bill Clinton, Billie Jean King and others.
“What a Trailblazer,” Bernice King wrote, “…a champion matters in many ways. Thank you and rest in power, sir.”
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