Reflections on the Greatness of Bill Russell (1934-2022)

Vinson Cunningham writes:

In an era when the N.B.A. was much less marketable, and therefore much less forcibly narrativized, than it is today, Russell nonetheless crafted a persona that lasted him a lifetime. Part of it was the intelligence and rectitude of his playing style. Over six-nine with long limbs and air-cutting speed, he offered his physical and mental gifts at the altar of defense. (He wasn’t known as a shooter, but he could’ve scored a lot if he’d made it a goal. One short video shows him on a fast break, zooming up-court, taking a few long steps that teleport him from half-court to the rim with an easy force that prefigures Giannis Antetokounmpo.) Game footage of Russell is rare, but what we do have reveals a greyhound’s grace and a brain like sonar, locating defenders who had slipped past his teammates and, in a loping step or two, arriving on time to offer assistance. A famous photograph depicts him jumping almost perfectly vertically, his arm outstretched like an ancient tree branch, blocking a shot that couldn’t possibly, given the distance, be his primary responsibility.

Such was the deep, self-giving morality of Russell’s game, and what made him a natural fit, in his latter years, to serve as a player-coach (not to mention the first Black head coach in any major American pro-sports league): he took every flinching movement or forward advance on the court as his own issue to address. The cost and the substance of his greatness was total awareness, an impossible density of movement and thought….

Concurrent with that on-court genius were his steadfast political engagement and personal resilience. The fifties and sixties were excruciating years in America, and they became a social gantlet for Russell. He was big, smart, self-accepting, sometimes remote, rightly pissed—the kind of Black man who flips switches in the wrong kinds of minds….

When he talked about his involvement with the civil-rights movement, he didn’t sound like a happy warrior or an eager activist—just a man who, by dint of his color and his status, had a job that he knew he couldn’t shirk. He loaned his presence, loaned that face and his voice, to help solve a problem he hadn’t caused. One more price to pay. It was help defense: if you could, you did.

Marcus Thompson II writes:

His professional success, his love for his people, and his courage did the dual task of representing his people and empowering them. He was not only an example of what was possible, that Black people could make it to incredible heights, but getting there didn’t require compromise. He was also part of the revolution that was being televised, on the platform of sports, for the inspiration of future generations.

Certainly, this view is impacted by being born and raised in Oakland, where Russell is on The Town Rushmore. Not of sports, but of impact. Russell is among the last of a critical generation. One that produced these hubs of Black success in places like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. One that went and took what was promised to them during Reconstruction but never delivered.

Russell was a pioneer of that generation, a bastion for what it represented and what it instilled. He was a pillar standing at the intersection of sports and Black progress, excellence and expectation, dominance and demand.

Marc J. Spears writes:

Russell was widely considered a paramount figure in NBA history after winning 11 times with the Celtics in 13 years but was just as well known for being outspoken on social justice issues. The two-time Basketball Hall of Famer was the first African American coach in NBA history and a part of the first all-Black starting five.

The Olympic gold medalist was a renowned civil rights advocate who led a player protest when Celtics players were denied service at a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1961 and showed his support of NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem in 2017 by posting a photo of himself kneeling on his Twitter account….

Philadelphia/Golden State Warriors patriarch and Hall of Famer Al Attles played against Russell during his NBA days and was pained by the news of his death. Attles credited Russell for paving the way for Black NBA players.

“I am in a terrible place,” Attles, 85, said. “As great as he was as a player, once I got to know him, he was a much better person. There were a lot of things that he did for the Celtics, and he blocked my shots. But he was a great person.

“He opened a lot of doors and doors that you don’t talk about. He touched a lot of people.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes:

When I learned that my friend Bill Russell had died, I tweeted this response: “Bill Russell was the quintessential Big Man—not because of his height but because of the size of his heart. In basketball he showed us how to play with grace and passion. In life he showed us how to live with compassion and joy. He was my friend, my mentor, my role model.”

That’s as much truth as I could fit into 272 characters (with spaces). But there is a whole lot more truth and love and respect in my 60-year relationship with Bill Russell that I want to share so the world can know him, not just as one of the greatest basketball players to ever live, but as a man who taught me how to be bigger—as a player and as a man.

Logan Murdock writes:

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.”

Jerry Brewer writes:

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.

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.

Marc Stein writes:

As the literal and figurative centerpiece of Red Auerbach’s Boston Celtics, and perhaps the most influential activist athlete of all-time, Russell has a strong claim to usurp anyone you could wish to name as the most important figure in the history of his sport….

Incessantly measured throughout his career against Wilt Chamberlain, and then routinely shortchanged in modern-day G.O.A.T. debates thanks to his modest offensive statistics and in part because the history of the 1950s and ‘60s NBA was so poorly preserved, Russell really belongs in his own category.