Losing Bill Russell, champion and civil rights icon, leaves us poorer


Not even Bill Russell, as much as he deserved to and as desperately as we need him to, is allowed to live forever.

Russell, who died Sunday morning at age 88, represented the pinnacle of achievement in a sports career. He was no less spectacular as a human being than he was in basketball, a king of kings, a champion’s champion, a man’s man, a citizen’s citizen and a thinker’s thinker.

The first of the gifted youngsters that would roll off the Oakland’s assembly line of Black athletes during the 10-year span following the Korean War, Russell unwittingly issued America a warning of the procession of proud, principled Black men to come out of the town across the bay from San Francisco.

First player to challenge the system prohibiting professional freedom in Major League Baseball or any major American sport: Curt Flood, from Oakland Technical High School, in 1970. First Black MLB manager: Frank Robinson, from McClymonds High and the only man to win MVP awards in both leagues, in 1975. First and only second baseman to win consecutive MVP awards: Joe Morgan, from Castlemont High in Oakland, in 1975-76.

All three left lasting imprints in sports and culture. All three are gone, Flood in 1997, Robinson in 2019, Morgan in 2020.

And now they are joined by their friend, the belly-laughing pioneer they all admired.

Russell, from McClymonds, was the NBA’s first Black star the moment he entered the league in 1956. He was the first Black MVP in the NBA, in 1958. The first player named NBA MVP in three consecutive seasons, 1961-63. First Black head coach in the NBA -- or any major American sport -- in 1966. First Black individual to enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, in 1975.

During his 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, Russell earned 12 All-Star Game appearances, 12 All-NBA honors, 11 championships, five MVP awards and six additional top-four finishes in the MVP voting. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound center is second in career rebounds and, of course, first in career postseason rebounds.

Forsberg: Bill Russell set the standard for Celtics basketball

Russell played basketball at savant level, with peerless understanding of the grit and skill and mentality -- and, above all, synergy -- required for consistent winning at the highest level. He could diagnose not only what was needed of himself but also of each teammate.

“The most important measure of how good a game I'd played,” he once said, “was how much better I'd made my teammates play.” 

And yet, Russell represented so much more than excellence in sports. Putting a finer point on it, he was a man of unimpeachable integrity who stood tall for issues that impact society.

Russell prevailed in the face of aggressive and relentless racism, particularly during his playing and coaching career. Even as the Celtics were winning championships with him as their centerpiece, racist locals in Boston routinely vandalized his home. How easy it might have been for Russell to throw up his hands and plead to be traded to a city where he might be afforded more civilized treatment.

That was not the way of Bill Russell, for Charlie Russell’s son was cut from cloth similar to that of Jack Johnson and Paul Robeson before him, and Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos after him. They do not bow to threats or trauma. They do not suffer in silence. They do not surrender to the ugliest aspects of the hatred and indignities heaped upon them. They do not compromise.

Rather, they stand up and speak out, telling the world of their unfiltered reality -- even knowing much of the world neither cares nor wants to hear it.

Barack Obama honors NBA legend Bill Russell with touching statement

Upon being selected for the Hall of Fame in ‘75, Russell chose not to attend the ceremony or accept that particular ring. His decision has been ascribed to three reasons. One, he was uncomfortable with receiving an individual honor in a team sport. Two, he believed the Hall of Fame was a racist institution. Three, he could not consent to being enshrined as the first Black player when other deserving Black players had been denied.

Not until Chuck Cooper, the first Black player drafted by the Celtics, was awarded posthumous induction in 2019, did Russell accept his ring and embrace his Hall of Fame status.

“But for all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life,” read a portion of the tweet announcing his death. “From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to unmask too-long-tolerated discrimination, to leading Mississippi’s first integrated basketball camp in the combustible wake of Medgar Evers’ assassination, to decades of activism ultimately recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor that he intended would disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change.”

Russell once said his most prized possession as a youth was “my library card from the Oakland Public Library.” Who could doubt the sincerity of that statement? Everything he did in life indicates tremendous appreciation of the value of knowledge.

Whether the viewpoint is local, national or global, Russell’s passing puts us in a lesser place. Gone is one of the most magnificent titans of a consequential era in America. May his spirit forever live in every heart and mind.

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