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Bill Russell, the greatest basketball player in history, activist, and great man, died at 88 on Sunday.
The NBA has been fortunate to have the greatest basketball players in the history display their talents on the hardwoods. Coming to the minds of most fans will be Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and Kobe Bryant.
I feel lucky to be as old as I am. I have watched many great players in my 76 years. I began watching college and professional basketball when I was about 10-years-old on television in Los Angeles. In 1956, the Boston Celtics acquired a 22-year-old man who graduated from the University of San Francisco. He was 6-feet-9-inches tall and was part of a team that won two NCAA championships. This young Black man became the center of the Celtics and immediately impacted his team and the game.
I became an instant fan of both the Celtics and Russell.
However, my devotion to the Celtics ended when the Minneapolis Lakers moved to L.A. in 1960. With them came a young man, the sportswriters, referred to as “Zeke from Cabin Creek.” His real name was Jerry West, and he came from West Virginia.
The Celtics and Lakers had talented teams, and they became rivals immediately. However, the Celtics were the dominant team in the NBA and defeated my Lakers consistently.
Russell was an unselfish player. This made him the greatest player of all time. He scored, rebounded, and recorded assists, whatever was needed to win championships.
He finished his playing career in 1969. He played in 13 NBA seasons, winning 11 championships. His statistics were admirable, averaging 13.4 points per game, 22.5 rebounds per game, and 4.3 assists. It was his leadership and his overall game which inspired his team to be at their best when needed.
The late former teammate of Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1999:
Look, all I know is, the guy won two NCAA championships, 50-some college games in a row, the Olympics, then he came to Boston and won 11 championships in 13 years, and they named a [explative] tunnel after Ted Williams.
Russell became the first Black head coach in any major sport in 1966 when he led the Celtics to a championship as a player/coach. No player/coach had ever won a major championship. He was victorious once again in the 1967-1968 season, leaving the Celtics after the 1968-1969 season.
It is easy to claim that no player in the future of the NBA will accomplish what Russell did over his career. With free agency allowing players to leave their teams at will, I do not expect to see any player remain on a single team for 13 consecutive years again.
Therefore, no one will ever win 11 championships in 13 seasons. There will certainly never be another player/coach to win one championship, nevertheless two consecutive victories.
How lucky I was to have watched the greatest player in the NBA, possibly in any sport, play for his entire career.
But he must be remembered for more than just basketball. He was an activist for the rights of Black Americans during and after his career. He was cursed, threatened, and heavily criticized by white supremacists for his efforts to help all Black people in America be treated equally and obtain the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution. For this, he never received the adulation of the white players on the Celtics. However, this never discouraged him or lessened his efforts to do the right thing on and off the court.
I will never forget him for the man he was and the example he set for all Black young men in America.
Written by James Turnage, Novelist
The New York Times: Bill Russell, Who Transformed Pro Basketball, Dies at 88; by Richard Goldstein
Mother Jones: Bill Russell Never Stopped Fighting; by Tim Murphy
Basketball Reference: Bill Russell
CBS News: Bill Russell did the impossible when he led the Celtics to two championships as their player-coach; by Sam Quinn