By A.Sherrod Blakely
WASHINGTONEven when President Barack Obama needed Bill Russell to scoot down a bit to drape his neck with the prestigious Medal of Freedom, Russell's 6-foot-9 frame stood head and shoulders above those in attendance.
It was a fitting image for a man whose play, whose purpose in life, often stood above others in such a way that changed both the NBA and America as a whole.
He was -- he is -- a living legend.
And while he has often been recognized and praised for his prowess as a basketball player, those who know him best understand there's so much more to the man.
NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown was invited to the White House ceremony as a guest of Russell, along with baseball legend Joe Morgan.
"The best I can say is it's a great honor that they recognize the man that he is," Brown told CSNNE.com. "But I already knew. If I had to wait until this day to know that, I'd be in terrible shape."
Not a Boston Celtics legend.
Not an NBA Hall of Famer.
But a man.
The never-ending pursuit to be treated as a person and not just a basketball player would serve as the driving force behind Russell's ascension into the conscience of America as the Civil Rights Movement steadily gained momentum.
"Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men," said Obama. "He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King; he stood by Muhammed 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."
And yes, you can add Obama to those who believe that a permanent fixture of Russell's likeness needs to be erected somewhere in Boston.
"I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to be Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man," said President Obama.
NBA commissioner David Stern was among those in attendance to witness Russell being bestowed the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to civilian.
"It's so well-deserved," Stern told CSNNE.com. "Not just as an athlete, but a fighter for the rights for all in America. It was thrilling to be here."
Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) grew up watching Russell lead the Celtics to championship after championship, both as a player and as the first African-American coach of a major professional team in America.
"He's a legend," Brown told CSNNE.com. "The things he did for the Celtics, the city of Boston and for all mankind."
Indeed, basketball as the platform helped catapult Russell's efforts towards racial equality.
In both basketball and race relations, Russell had one agenda - - victory.
And in both, he would do it his way.
"He was just himself and he believed that the evidence was on the court, the way he carried himself," former Celtics great and Russell teammate, Satch Sanders. "So he never worried about the impression he left on other people."
During his playing days, Russell was criticized at times for not practicing as much as other players.
Sanders explained why those missed practices actually helped the Celtics.
"People haven't addressed this subject, but what he would do is disrupt the practice, blocking shots," Sanders said. "Let's face it. We're trying to go through plays, get the timing down, he's lurking."
So when players would complain or gripe about him blocking their shots, Russell's response?
"He'd say, 'I gotta keep my game sharp,' " Sanders recalled.
Keeping an edge is something current Celtic Kevin Garnett is known for throughout the NBA.
He's also known as a player who holds Russell in high esteem, even before he became a Celtic.
"When I think of Russell, I think of transcending," Garnett said. "If you take Bill Russell out, the young bigs don't exist. You know, if you take someone out of history a lot of us are not even here. Not only did he transcend on the court, but off the court. Being pro-righteous in what he believed in and speaking up and standing up for that right. Different times back in the day, you know?"
Different times indeed.
Russell was at the forefront of a generation that was about bringing change to the status quo, efforts that opened the doors for players of future generations to benefit from.
Garnett recognizes this.
"I respect a lot of the old guys just because of what they went through in order for us to be here today," Garnett said.
Celtics guard Ray Allen recalled crossing paths with Russell (who has a home in Seattle) when Allen played for the Seattle Supersonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder).
"He's so funny and interesting because he'll tell you a story, and he's got a lot of stories," Allen said. "No matter if the story is funny or not, he's going to laugh and since he laughs you laugh and it ends up being a great story he told. I've always enjoyed talking to him because I always walk away with a laugh."
Off the court was about the only time those close to Russell would see his sense of humor.
"We had an awful lot of fun, an awful lot of laughs," Sanders said. "He had that demeanor, not talking or wanting anybody around him. But off the court, that's the Russ I really miss. He's fun; joking. You could hear that laugh. We had a lot of laughs."
And on Tuesday, Russell was all smiles, surrounded by the 14 other Medal of Freedom honorees.
He was the only one among them who claimed basketball as his profession.
But as we've come to find with Russell, he was more than just a basketball player.
"Whenever someone looks up at all 6-9 of Bill Russell -- I just did -- I always feel small next to him," said Obama, who is 6-1. "And asks, 'Are you a basketball player?' Surprisingly, he gets this more than you think, this question. He says, 'No.' He says, 'That's what I do, that's not what I am. I'm not a basketball player. I am a man who plays basketball.' "