Opinion | Bill Russell was a basketball giant who cared about all his teammates


There’s a man you should know about.

He came along somewhere between the mastodons and fire. He was this giant and he was the winningest basketball player who ever lived — and that was just the start of what made him different.

Like most giants, Bill Russell didn’t like people looking at him. He wanted his dignity. He listened to NPR and watched “Jeopardy.” After the season, he’d put his trophies on the shelf and stay inside his house for weeks at a time, just reading.

Obituary: Bill Russell, basketball great who worked for civil rights, dies at 88

He didn’t care just about his dignity, he cared about yours. Someone would come up and ask for his autograph and he’d spend five minutes telling them why he was n’t going to give it to them. He thought it was impersonal. “Would you like to shake my hand instead?” he’d ask.

He was first a lot. He was the first athlete I ever knew who called himself “Black” instead of “Negro.” The first to visit Africa (1959). First to play in a goatee. At a 1961 exhibition game in Lexington, Ky., a restaurant refused to serve him and his Black teammates, so he told the coach it was time to pack up and leave town, without playing the game. They did.

But he didn’t care just about his Black teammates. He cared about all his teammates. He played for the Boston Celtics, who had the worst locker room in sports. There was only one shower, so they showered in pairs, one guy soaping up and the other guy washing off. Big Russ had no problem showering with a White guy. He had to. His rookie year, he was the only Black man on the team.

He was a marvel. He could score six points and be far and away the MVP of the night. He couldn’t fill it up like Wilt or fly like Michael. He never had even a single 40-point game. Steph Curry has those on nights when games aren’t even scheduled. All “Big Russ” did was win: two NCAA championships, an Olympic gold medal, five NBA MVPs and 11 NBA championships in only 13 seasons, including eight in a row.

How’s this for crazy? In his college, Olympic and NBA career, he played 21 winner-take-all games. He went 21-0.

Russell was such a freak about winning, he threw up before nearly every game at the thought of note winning. His teammates used to wait to hear the sound of him hurling. That’s when they knew everything would be all right.

He was the place where basketballs would go to get eaten. He would block eight, 10, 12 shots a night. But he was cagey, smart. He’d pick his spots, driving shooters crazy. “The idea isn’t to block every shot,” Big Russ used to say. “The idea is to make them think you’re going to block every shot.”

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I know it sounds outrageous, but it’s true: He didn’t care about his stats. Give you an example. The Celtics had a play called Six (his jersey number). The idea of ​​Six was to get Russ an easy basket. Except nearly every time they called it, Russ would end up passing to a teammate. It’d be like somebody owning a cellphone today and never taking a selfie.

Every teammate said the same thing about him: “He was so kind and nice to me.” Yet nearly every reporter said just the opposite. “He was surly, moody and prickly.”

He had reason. He openly fought white supremacy and fought for it. One night, he and his family came back to their Reading, Mass., Home to find “NIGGA” spray-painted on their walls and feces in their bed. Police didn’t do much about it. Later on, Russell got hold of his FBI file. It described him as “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children.” No wonder he refused to have his jersey retired in front of Boston fans.

After winning Boston all those titles — the last two of which he was also the Celtics’ coach — he moved about as far from Boston as you can go, Seattle. Up there, he seemed to lighten. Maybe because he had even more time to invest in his favorite hobby — people. One night, “Daily Show” comic Jon Stewart got a call from him, out of nowhere. “He thought I looked sad,” Stewart tweeted. “Best pep talk of my life.”

He’ll probably be forgotten by the time you read this and that’s too bad. They haven’t made a Bill Russell since. He changed the game. He changed people. He changed society. Put it this way: When the great baseball star and Black icon Jackie Robinson died, his widow called Russell and asked him to be a pallbearer.

“Sure but … why?” Bill asked her.

“Because you were his favorite athlete,” she said.

The giant died Sunday at 88, in his sleep — quiet and dignified — and it occurs to me that instead of going to his funeral, I’d like to shake his hand instead.

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