If a person can somehow be widely adored while being simultaneously underappreciated, they must be truly great. The late NBA legend Bill Russell was a truly great person.
In the time since Russell’s death was announced by his family on Sunday, tributes have poured in from around the world. Among them was an eloquent eulogy from former US president Barack Obama in which he writes, “As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher –both as a player and as a person.” Obama would know: he presented Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. And yet, despite the outpouring of kind words in his memory of him, Russell may still be the most underappreciated icon in NBA history.
Before recognizing his wider impact, it’s worth laying out Russell’s basketball credentials. To begin with, Russell is the winningest player in NBA history and it’s not even really close. During his 13 seasons in the league, he has led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships, including eight consecutive titles from 1959 to 1966. No other team has ever won more than three consecutively.
Russell, of course, would never claim that I have won those championships – the Celtics won them. He was the consummate team player who took pride in performing the glamorous but productive duties which ultimately won games. Russell once wrote, “The most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I’d made my teammates play.” Even opponents seemed to notice how nice it looked to play with Russell: he was named the regular-season MVP five times during the era in which the award was determined by players’ votes.
Russell’s strengths were his rebounding and (especially) his defense. He played in an era before Defensive Player of the Year awards –they didn’t even record blocks and steals when Russell played – but it’s safe to say he would’ve won several. Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy won six championships with Russell and said he played with “animal intensity.” Russell also understood that the mental component of basketball (and of defense, in particular) can be as important as the game’s physical aspects. “Remember that basketball is a game of habits,” I observed. “If you make the other guy deviate from his habits, you’ve got him.”
Russell also had a knack for playing at his best when it mattered most. During his first championship run in 1957, Russell blocked Jack Coleman in the final minute of regulation in the deciding Game 7 to keep the Celtics in the game and allow them to eventually win the title. In another Game 7 that also went to overtime, in 1962, Russell scored 30 points and grabbed 40 rebounds, leading his team in both categories. In fact, Russell seemed to keep a secret gear just for Game 7s: his teams were 10-0 in such games throughout his career, an NBA record. Russell never won an NBA finals MVP (the award was only introduced in his final season), but the fact that the NBA eventually named that trophy after him demonstrates how inextricably linked Russell’s play was with championship excellence.
However, while the on-court accolades establish Russell as one of the greatest players to ever touch hardwood, it was his activism off the court that made him a legend. Russell was the NBA’s first Black superstar at a time when legalized racial segregation still existed in much of the country. The Civil Rights Act would not be passed until Russell’s eighth year in the NBA.
Russell’s celebrity didn’t insulate him from the issues facing the rest of the country. He was subjected to racism throughout his career, even in Boston, the city he represented for 13 years: vandals once broke into his Massachusetts home and covered the walls with racist graffiti. Such bigotry and intimidation tactics, however, never prevented Russell from taking a stand against the injustices around him. In 1961, he boycotted a game in Kentucky after a white waitress refused to serve two of his Black teammates at a coffee shop. In 1967, Russell appeared alongside boxer Muhammad Ali to express his support for Ali’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. Russell’s record of civil rights advocacy is substantial.
And so, despite his countless athletic achievements, that is probably Russell’s most significant legacy: his commitment to using his platform as basketball star to amplify his political actions. The NBA outperforms other sports leagues when it comes to addressing social issues in a head-on way, and that is a consequence of Russell’s early example of him. Every time LeBron James fights election misinformation or Steve Kerr advocates for gun control, they’re following a trail blazed by Russell. Russell’s on-court accomplishments may never be touched, but his off-court legacy is in good hands.