WHEN ALL IS CONSIDERED, ISN’T BILL RUSSELL THE TRUE G.O.A.T.?
As the most decorated force in team sports, he won 11 NBA titles — five more than Jordan — but more importantly, a dignified giant blazed trails as a fearless, robust activist in deeply racist America
They think they know about Bill Russell, but they don’t. If so, the prima donnas who populate the NBA’s young ruling class wouldn’t parade around like entitled jackasses. His era was decades before theirs, too far back for any network docu-series, but if a time machine had dropped his prime into the 21st century, be certain he’d never have engaged in social-media prattle, gone AWOL for large chunks of seasons or demanded a trade with four years left on his contract.
Oh, he was an activist, robust and fearless. He just happened to raise hell with a majesty that commanded everyone to listen, about the searing hatred that engulfed him and Black America when racism was at its ugliest and most dangerous. It’s a shame Russell had to die, at 88 after a lengthy illness, before we were reminded again of his life lessons. LeBron James thinks he has it rough. Kevin Durant always seeks the escape hatch. Ben Simmons’ feelings are hurt. Kyrie Irving is a self-centered mercenary who sabotages his every team, most recently to avoid a vaccine jab.
They are blessed and fortunate compared to Russell — in fact, BECAUSE of Russell, who knew all along the impact he was making but had a soulful way of articulating it. “If you can take something to levels that very other people can reach,” he said in 1999, “then what you’re doing becomes art.”
An artist and a gentleman and an innovator, he was. He knocked down the societal barriers that today’s stars have dribbled through, sometimes with pouts and scowls that insult his legacy. Through it all, he defined the essence of a champion — 11 titles in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, his final two triumphs as the league’s first Black head coach; two more in college, another in the Olympics. And though he could have overloaded every stat sheet as a gifted big man, he let Wilt Chamberlain have the scoring records and the women. Russell? His mind was bigger than the game, emphasizing defense, rebounding, getting the ball to Hall of Fame teammates … and winning, more than anyone has won in team sports.
Does anyone remember winning? As the leading priority? “Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate,” commissioner Adam Silver said, “and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever.”
We’ve lost more than a sports colossus. We’ve lost a man who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., supported Muhammad Ali when he refused to serve in the U.S. military, and co-existed with the bigots in Boston, then found time to hoist banners into the Garden rafters. Russell saw America for what it was back in 1963, when he told Sport magazine, “There are two societies in this country, and I have to recognize it, to see life for what it is and not go stark, raving mad. I don’t work for acceptance. I am what I am. If you like it, that’s nice. If not, I couldn’t care less.”
His civil rights foresight should make today’s sports crowd feel foolish. Why oh why have we wasted so many words on whether Michael Jordan or LeBron or someone else is the greatest of all time? They would agree that Russell deserves the distinction, as the NBA concurs in honoring its Finals MVP with the Bill Russell Award. I am not alone in wondering if James, who wears the same No. 6 as Russell, should try another number this season out of deference and reverence.
“Bill Russell was a pioneer — as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach and as an activist,” Jordan wrote. “He paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him, including me. The world has lost a legend.”
Among other greats pausing for poetry was last season’s Finals MVP, Stephen Curry: “Trailblazer. Icon. Greatest Champ in basketball. Made the world on and off the court a better place. Thank you and rest easy! 11.”
It surprises no one that the only time Russell tapped into social media as a weapon was to support Colin Kaepernick. When Donald Trump used his presidency to trash NFL players who knelt for the national anthem — “Get that son of a bitch off the field … “Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country” — Russell posted a selfie kneeling with the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded him years earlier by Barack Obama. Russell later called Trump “divisive” and “a coward.” Deep into his 80s, the activist was alive and well and proud.
Tweeted Obama, shortly after learning of Russell’s passing Sunday: “Today we lost a giant. As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and as a person. Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead. On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Off of it, he was a civil rights trailblazer — marching with Dr. King and standing with Muhammad Ali. For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right. I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life.”
In the end, a statement-in-mourning from Russell’s family nailed how he’ll be remembered. “But for all the winning, Bill's understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life,” it said. “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, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change.
“Perhaps you'll relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or recall his trademark laugh as he delighted in explaining the real story behind how those moments unfolded. And we hope each of us can find a new way to act or speak up with Bill's uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principle. That would be one last, and lasting, win for our beloved #6.”
Yes, the laugh. He always was able to chortle, through all the pain and the challenges, knowing he could survive and thrive with good humor. In his book, “Second Wind,” he wrote of his Celtics years: “To me, Boston itself was a flea market of racism. It had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form. The city had corrupt, city-hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-’em-back-to-Africa racists, and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists.”
And yet, he ignored the ills and won 11 championships for that city, later supporting Boston in its successful bid for the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “Bill,” said Silver, “stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league. At the height of his athletic career, Bill advocated vigorously for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed down to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps. “Through the taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill rose above it and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.”
Dignity. William Felton Russell never lost his when those around him lost theirs. Today’s generation of players may want to find some dignity of their own, if it isn’t too late. A good start would be a library.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.