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Greg Cote: 11 NBA championships are not where Bill Russell’s legacy starts. A tribute to an epic life.

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Member of the Boston Celtics' 1966 Championship team Bill Russell is honored at halftime of a game between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat at TD Garden on April 13, 2016, in Boston.

Member of the Boston Celtics' 1966 Championship team Bill Russell is honored at halftime of a game between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat at TD Garden on April 13, 2016, in Boston. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images/TNS)

William Felton Russell made his living in a profession that judges success by an unequivocal bottom line: Winning. How much of that did you do?

Bill Russell by that measure was simply the greatest, most accomplished professional athlete in the history of North American team sports. There were not enough fingers and thumbs for his 11 NBA championships including eight in a row as the centerpiece of the dynastic Boston Celtics from 1956 to 1969.

Add an Olympic gold medal, two NCAA championships and two high school state titles and see the most gilded winner of them all. All sports. All time.

So it seems impossible to say this truth about Russell as we reflect on an epic life that ended peacefully Sunday at age 88, wife Jeannine by his side at their Seattle-area home:

Basketball wasn’t what he did best.

Winning wasn’t what needs to be mentioned first when his greatness and importance is parsed.

He would become an NBA star, but was never that first or only.

He was a Black man in America, first and always, hardened by the injustice around him and fighting it all his days. He was never a greater champion than as a champion of social justice.

“Today, we lost a giant,” tweeted former President Barack Obama on Sunday.

From the family’s statement announcing his passing:

“For all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life. From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to unmask too-long-tolerated discrimination, to leading Mississippi’s first integrated basketball camp in the combustible wake of Medgar [Evers’] assassination, to decades of activism ultimately recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor that he intended would disrupt the status quo...”

Oh yeah: He also was a five-time NBA MVP who averaged 22.5 rebounds a game in his career.

As a kid in South Florida but born in Massachusetts, I latched on to those dynastic Celtics as my first favorite basketball team, some three decades before the Heat came along. Russell and John Havlicek were my guys, along with Sam Jones, who had that sweet bank shot of the glass.

The boy in me was seeing just the great defender, shot blocker and rebounder in Russell, not the struggle, not the man who had such a complicated relationship with Boston for its racist side. He’d sometimes hear slurs shouted to him from fans. Celtics fans.

Russell lived then in Reading, a suburb just north of Boston.

“Police cars followed me often,” he wrote for SLAM Magazine in 2020. “I looked into buying a different house in a different neighborhood, but people in that neighborhood started a petition to persuade the seller not to sell to me.”

To the star of the champion Celtics.

Russell took on the cause of outspokenness, of civil rights; he marched with Martin Luther King Jr., because those were his rights he was fighting for, the rights of the oppressed.

Russell’s journey that ended gilded in gold and wrapped in championships began born in deeply segregated West Monroe, Louisiana in 1934.

He sat in the back seat of his father’s car in a filling station to hear his Dad refused service until after all of the white customers were served first. When Charles Russell attempted to leave the line and find another station, the gas jockey stuck a shotgun in his face and ordered him to stay.

Young Bill also recalled walking outside once with his mother, who wore a fancy white dress. A white policeman accosted her, and ordered her to go home and change out of what the cop called “white women’s clothing.”

That was his childhood, growing up without much in housing projects.

That was still his life years later, as an NBA champion, waiting for the next racial slur that might tumble anonymously from somewhere in the home crowd at a time, and in a city, struggling with the idea of desegregation.

Russell in his life would become the greatest champion American team sports has ever seen, but he was never that more than he was a man of untiring social activism and high and unflinching principles.

Old age mellowed him. He became softer of nature, known for that distinctive raspy laugh of his, and an easy smile. But the scars that drove his lifelong activism were never something he tried to hide, or pretend weren’t there.

When being a Hall of Fame athlete and an all-time champion isn’t even what you did best or where your legacy should start, you have had a monumental life worthy of not just praise, but also thanks.

Bill Russell, 1934-2022, R.I.P.


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