Bill Russell lived life like very few people


Celtics legend Bill Russell stands by the side of the court during a tribute in his honor. Michael Dwyer/AP file photo

Bill Russell hated autographs. They didn’t see any meaning. If he was eating out and someone approached for his signature, Russell’s typical response was to ask the person to join him at the table to chat about life.

Autograph seekers almost always refused.

Oh, the stories he remembered.

Russell, the greatest winner in the history of the team’s sport, died on Sunday at the age of 88. Basketball’s legacy is beyond famous: 11 championships in 13 years with the Boston Celtics, first Black coach in the NBA, first Black coach to win the NBA title, Hall of Fame player, Hall of Fame coach, Olympic champion, NCAA champion, league’s Member of the 75th anniversary team, and named after the NBA Finals MVP award, when he played, he would have won at least half a dozen times.

But if those mementos had given Russell the chance to sit down for a meal with him, he would have heard about his passion for golf. Or the mating habits of bees, something he once wrote about in a column. Or expensive cars with expensive sound systems so that he can blaze to the music of Laura Nyro, Janice Ian, or Crosby, Stills, and Nash – some of his favorites.

“His mind was bigger than basketball,” author Taylor Branch, who spent nearly a year working on a book with Russell near Seattle in the 1970s, said Sunday. “And his personality was as great as he was in basketball.”

Take away all the achievements on the court, and Russell still lived a life.

He stood shoulder to shoulder with Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s, the height of the civil rights movement. He was in the audience when King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington in 1963. They marched in Mississippi after the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. When the fighter refused to go to Vietnam, he supported Muhammad Ali. He helped start the National Basketball Players Association. President Barack Obama — at about 6-foot-2, a taller than average man — had to stretch a bit when wrapping the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Russell’s neck in 2011, even as Russell momentarily bent down to adjust.

“He tolerated humiliation and vandalism, but he focused on making teammates, whom he liked better players, and making the success of so many people possible,” Obama said that day. said. “And I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will see a statue not only made for player Bill Russell, but Bill Russell the Man.”

Russell was once asked a question about being a black star in Boston, a city with a complicated history when it comes to race. The premise was that it was difficult for Russell to live in such a place, to play for fans in such a city.

“What I attributed to doing, and I did well enough, was that every time I came across an adversity, I decided to control it so that if a guy came up to me and tried to give me a bad day , so I made sure he was the one who left the bad day,” Russell said. “And so, it took thought, planning, and prudence and intelligence to make it happen. This is how I conducted my life. ,

Case in point: an apparent invasion of raccoons in Reading, Massachusetts, around 1958.

In his second season with the Celtics, Russell bought a house in Reading. He went out for a road trip and his garbage can overturned. Something similar happened during the second road trip of the season. Russell went to the police, who guessed that the raccoons would be the culprit. Russell asked permission for the gun.

“The raccoons heard about it,” Russell said. “Never turn the trash can again.”

The gun was never even bought.

To see Russell only as a basketball player, even as one of the greatest players of all time, would be a disgrace—a disgrace, really. He is still second only to Wilt Chamberlain on the NBA’s all-time rebounding list, and will probably remain in that spot forever as no one has come close to him in the past 50 years. He won five MVP awards, finishing second behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s league record with Michael Jordan.

“That’s what I did,” Russell said in 2009. “It wasn’t who I was.”

That’s the lesson. He didn’t stop and didn’t dribble. He stood for what he believed in, stood with what he believed in. Being fearless on the basketball court was easy. Being fearless in the real world—even dealing with matters of race in some of the country’s darkest times on that subject—was somehow even easier.

“He had such curiosity about human nature, psychology,” Branch said. “It was a treasure for me to be around Bill and see how he sees the world in all its dimensions.”

There are many of them in the world. Russell did too. And on Sunday, the world lost an ultimate legend.

Oh, the stories we’ll miss.

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