Bill Russell was the most successful NBA player ever. And yet, the day after his death, hardly anyone is talking about the athlete
When Michael Jordan, after winning three championships with the Bulls, surprisingly hung up his basketball shoes in 1993 – at least temporarily – they put a statue of him in front of the arena in Chicago, on whose pedestal was written: “The best there ever was. The best there ever will be. “
When Bill Russell had already led the Celtics to six championships pretty much three decades earlier, they had broken into his house in Boston and left racist writing on the walls – and their feces in his bed.
Expelled from home – Olympic gold
Russell, born in southern Louisiana in 1934, had already been driven from there with his family by the age of eight. William Felton, known as Bill, eventually grew up in faraway California. And even if he had forced the national college league to change the rules as a multiple champion or had won Olympic gold for the USA as captain of the basketball team in 1956: that would not have changed anything. The “wrong” skin colour was enough back then.
Russell, as a man, was never about championships. He was to win eleven, six of which he already had behind him when he stood in the front row at Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech in the summer of 1963. King had asked the famous sports star to join him on the podium, but the latter refused: “I haven’t done enough for that yet.” Again, it was not about championships.
Nor was it about that at Russell’s first press conference when he took over the great Celtics as player-coach in 1966. “Are you going to be racist towards the white players?” was, mutatis mutandis, the first question from the gaggle of journalists. Retaliation? Russell alone had no time for such things.
In 1967, he had preferred to join the “Cleveland Summit” when a number of Black sports greats joined forces to defend Muhammad Ali’s heavily criticised decision not to go to the Vietnam War. Football star Jim Brown had organised the conference, and Russell became its driving force and face – while leading Boston, in a dual capacity, to more championships. Ali’s world title was nevertheless revoked.
How many times could Russell have lost his head, how many times could he have just given up? Because the list would go on for a while. He didn’t, he was just too smart for that too. As thoughtfully as he seemed to lose the big duels with his eternal rival Wilt Chamberlain individually most of the time, only to win the games with unselfish team basketball in the end, he acted as a mouthpiece for the oppressed “Black Community”. While the FBI watched him as an “arrogant negro” – this translation is probably self-explanatory – like an enemy.
At 83 on Twitter – for good reason
The 1960s were long gone and Russell could win no more championships when he suddenly appeared on Twitter in September 2017. A picture was posted showing the 83-year-old Russell on one knee – a gesture of support for NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had also taken a stand against social injustice. Which – and in modern times – cost him his job.
The mouthpiece Russell has always remained, socially and athletically. He always presented the award named after him for the best player in each NBA finals series to the winners himself, as long as his health permitted. Russell remained present until the end, an idol for athletes of all generations who sought his proximity and advice. Living history at your fingertips.
Last Sunday, a life full of history came to an end after 88 years, one of the greatest basketball players and also one of the greatest sportsmen of the 20th century, Bill Russell, passed away. And yet, since then, hardly anyone wants to talk about his eleven championships, which will probably remain unmatched forever.
“He was a pioneer and paved the way for every Black player who came into the league after him – including me,” thanked none other than Michael Jordan. US President Joe Biden praised the sports giant as a “great American who did everything he could to fulfil the promise of an America for all Americans”. And with Barack Obama, one of Biden’s predecessors noted that as tall as Russell was – and that was 2.08 metres after all – “his legacy extends beyond that”. Not to say the man has surpassed his athletic work.