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Bill Russell was a champion on and off the court

By Steve Goldberg

Bill Russell
Photo Courtesy Boston Celtics

The 2019 NBA All-Star Game had just finished, a win for Team LeBron over Team Giannis with a ridiculous 178-164 score line. Sitting courtside was the MVP of the 1963 game. Bill Russell only had 19 points in that game, second-most on his East team, but he did add 5 assists, and, oh yes, 24 rebounds.

As a sportswriter approached the legend that night in Charlotte, the force of nature that is Charles Barkley got there first, plopping down in the seat next to Russell with such velocity and force, that the journalist worried that the much larger Barkley might crush the once immovable object whose defense was the core of the Celtics dynasty.

Barkley was but one of the former and current NBA stars who paid homage to Russell that night. Many of whom who are doing the same now on the news of his passing at the age of 88. Barkley said, “The passing of Bill Russell is not just an NBA loss, it’s a world loss. When your actions match your words on important issues, you’re are a great man, not just a great basketball player.”

As a star player on the best team over much of the turbulent 60’s, Russell would not shut up and dribble as more narrow minds would prefer our athletes to do. He used his platform to be a leader in the civil rights movement.

“Bill Russell was a pioneer – as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach and as an

activist,” said Michael Jordan. “He paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him, including me. The world has lost a legend.”

President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

If you lean towards the accumulation of NBA championship rings as a denominator of who the greatest player of all time might be, Bill Russell, who stands alone with 11 title rings, would be your man.

Former Charlotte Hornet coach Paul Silas, also from Oakland but a decade younger than Russell, got to watch him play three-on-three pickup games at West Oakland’s DeFremery Park in the mid-1950s when Russell was at the University of San Francisco. “Nobody could beat him the whole day,” Silas told The Athletic, “until the end, someone could beat him maybe one game when he was tired.” Silas would eventually follow in Russell’s footsteps at McClymonds High School and later with the Celtics.

Russell would win two NCAA championships in three varsity seasons with the Dons. He won an Olympic gold medal at the 1956 games in Melbourne. His 11 NBA titles came in 13 seasons. He was honored as the Association’s MVP five times.


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