An old and hunched-over Bill Russell limped onto the stage at the 2017 NBA Awards to receive his honor for lifetime achievement.
There, the 84-year-old Boston Celtic legend was greeted by other all-time centers, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson.
Russell, standing at six-foot-ten, waited for the crowd to quiet down, only to point towards the other five hall-of-famers standing alongside him and say, “I would kick your ass.” Everyone in the room burst out in laughter, including Russell, whose iconic high-pitched cackle could make anyone smile.
The 11-time NBA champion, two-time NCAA National Champion, five-time NBA MVP and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient is an overlooked legend when talking about the greatest basketball players ever, and also the most important African-American athletes during the civil rights movement.
Russell was the first African-American head-coach in NBA history. He played in the NBA during a time when black athletes were looked down upon by owners, coaches and fans.
His unique basketball talent gave him a platform to be one of the most outspoken and thoughtful athletes of that time period.
“Jackie [Robinson] got us from point A, to point B,” said Russell in a 2015 interview with NBC Sports Network. “And I felt it was my job to get us from point B to point C.”
One of Russell’s most iconic moments came in 1967, when he and numerous other black athletes stood with Muhammed Ali after he took his stance to refuse military service. Ali and Russell were both outspoken in their criticisms of the U.S. government during this time.
When Russell was taken in the 1956 NBA draft, it wasn’t a popular decision for several reasons. At the time, elite defensive centers weren’t considered valuable. Russell changed that notion quickly
Additionally, the city of Boston never embraced Russell like they did with other white players on the team. “There was really no connection, for me, between the fans in Boston and the Boston Celtics.”
After Bob Cousy’s retirement in 1963, a fan once questioned Russell on how the team would be able to win without Cousy “carrying them.” Russell responded, “It’ll be difficult, and we’ll have to make an adjustment, but do yourself a favor and find out who the MVP of this league was the last three years.”
Even after Russel won the 1969 NBA title as a player-coach (his eleventh title in Boston), Red Auerbach, the Celtics team president, was questioned on whether he was satisfied with the coaching performance. “Certain reporters did not want a black guy coaching their Celtics,” said Russell.
Russell’s disconnect with the city of Boston went even farther than that. When Auerbach retired his No. 6 jersey to the rafters, Russell refused to attend.
“I have never liked sentimental ceremonies,” said Russell in a 2001 interview with Charlie Rose. “Those guys already up there were my teammates, so I have no problem being with them. I just don’t like ceremonies.”
Russell, who now lives in Seattle, WA, hasn’t returned to Boston since. He immediately moved back to the west coast after retirement, where he grew up.
Born in Louisiana, Russell and his family moved to Oakland when he was eight years old. There, he learned about the game of basketball.
At every opportunity, Russell mentions the impact his father, Charles, had on his development as a man. Katie Russell, Bill’s mother, passed away when he was 12 years old.
“My father is my hero,” said Russell during his interview with NBC Sports Network. “When my mother got sick and she knew she was dying, she asked him to promise her that he would send her sons to college.”
And Russell followed-through that promise, attending the University of San Francisco from 1953-1956.
Russell even says the “highlight of his career in terms of trophies” came when he won the 1963 All-Star game MVP, solely because he was able to fulfil a promise to his father, who was in attendance, that he was good enough to win the award if he tried hard enough.
At every point in his athletic career, starting with a state title at the age of 17, all the way through his eleventh and final NBA championship, Russell was a basketball champion. But more importantly, he was also a champion of civil rights, paving the way for African-American athletes who followed him.
In a 2013 interview with TNT’s Chris Webber, Russell talked about a favorite memory of his, when he took his grandfather to see him play for the first time with the Celtics. During the game, Bob Pettit, a former NBA player, went out of his way to introduce himself to Russell’s grandfather.
On the way home from that game, Russell’s grandfather said that something happened to him that day that had never happened to him before.
“He said that’s the first time that a white man has ever called him mister. I’m touched by that”