“If a guy pays you five dollars, you give him seven dollars worth of work.”
– Bill Russell
Bill Russell is the epitome of the word legend. When you think of the greatest legends in the history of sports, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, Bobby Moore, Michael Jordan, Pelé, and so on, Russell’s name belongs right beside them. Not only was he a legendary athlete, he was a giant of a man, an incredible human being, whose grace and dignity resonated far beyond the basketball court and made everyone pay attention. Bill Russell was more than a great basketball player. Bill Russell was a human being, a man, by every definition of the word, even at a time when Black people in the United States were subject to segregation. Russell’s pride was authentic, and he wore his Blackness as a badge of honor, allowing his kinsmen to do the same.
Bill Russell was born in West Monroe Louisiana, a town whose present day population is less than 15,000 people. In 1934, the year he was born, it is reported that fifteen Black people were lynched in the Jim Crow South. Those numbers only reflect the reported and verifiable deaths; in all actuality the real numbers were most likely much higher. To put it mildly, Russell was born at a time and in a place, where many of his neighbors thought that the wrong side had been victorious in the Civil War. Few would have been able to bear this burden well enough to live a respectable life; Russell overcame these obstacles and became a man who demanded the respect of his peers, regardless of their color.
The Winds of Change
Bill Russell’s father knew that staying in rural Louisiana would not only limit his own earning potential, it would also greatly damage the career trajectory of his children. So, when Bill was eight years old, he moved the family to Oakland California. Although racism was still a factor and the family was still poor, growing up in a city that would allow the talented tenth to excel was exactly the escape that young Bill needed. Life for most Blacks in California would remain hard, but for a tall athletic youth like Bill, there would be opportunities.
A Winning Legacy
Giving a detailed account of Russell’s basketball career would be a task worthy of a dedicated documentary. His name is synonymous with winning; Russell won an astounding eleven World Championships as a member of the Boston Celtics. Most people are unaware that he also won two NCAA Basketball Championships as a collegiate athlete and an Olympic Gold Medal with the United States basketball team in 1956.
For the majority of his professional career, his staunchest rival was Wilt Chamberlain, a man who stood head and shoulders above all others and was the most individually talented player of his time. While Chamberlain was the most unstoppable superstar the NBA had ever seen up until that point, Russell was the most unselfish. Chamberlain broke and set every scoring record imaginable during his time as a player. However it was Russell who won five league MVP Awards while turning the Celtics into the standard bearers of the league.
Dignity and Honor
Today, the NBA announced that Russell’s famous Number 6 would be retired league-wide. Current players who are wearing the number, like LeBron James, will be allowed to keep it on their uniforms until they are either retired or traded. During his time, Bill Russell gave the NBA respectability and demanded the same in return from everyone he encountered. It is only fitting that the league he helped establish is repaying him by bestowing upon him the ultimate honor. He is certainly a man who will never be forgotten; by retiring his jersey number in every league arena, the NBA is making certain that his memory lives on in an honorable way.
A Great Example
Although the news of his passing on July 31st of this year was certainly sad, Russell left a legacy that will certainly live on. His life stands as proof that people should be judged “by the content of their character, and not the color of their skin.” Webster’s Dictionary defines the word hero as “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities.” Bill Russell fits that description to a tee. To call him a modern day hero is not hyperbole; it is a statement of fact. Rest in Peace, Number Six. We are all better for having witnessed your dignity, and are blessed by the remembrance of your grace.
Thomas J. Brown