Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell deserves our reverence, understanding and respect
We live in a culture of debate, inherently reductive to this or that, who was better, more, less, greater. TV, social media or online, ours is a decibel culture, where people don’t often learn as part of their entertainment. Ears are not made for listening. They are for glasses.
In this fighting culture, where argument and volume pass for knowledge and understanding, the death of Boston Celtics great Bill Russell comes at a time when even professionals – or, above all professionals – are paid for their ability to imitate fans’ supporters. In recent weeks, former NBA sniper and ESPN analyst JJ Redick said that Bob Cousy, in his day, was guarded by “plumbers and firefighters.” Golden State forward Draymond Green says he doesn’t see how Michael Jordan’s 1998 Chicago Bulls could have competed with his Warriors 2017. Bob Cousy, 93, and Jerry West, 84, protected their time by hitting back, Cousy with a joke that, if true, the NBA must have the best plumbers and firefighters, West more acerbically reminding Redick that he was just a one-dimensional player who was never a star.
Redick soaked the old ones. The elders retreated. This is how we communicate.
A casualty of this particular brand of noise is professional respect, a lack of care for the careers of previous generations, their hardships and conditions in favor of clapbacks. It’s not just performative to get attention, but deliberate conviction. With Russell’s death will come a ceasefire, rhetoric replaced with temporary reverence, quiet admiration for his dignity and towering accomplishments, and the bittersweet passage of time. Cousy is the only remaining player from the Celtics’ first championship team, in 1957. Bill Sharman left. The same goes for Tommy Heinsohn, and only a few remain – Don Chaney, Don Nelson, Emmette Bryant, for example – from his last, in 1969.
Boston’s black community will mourn its champion: a grateful player and community in hostile territory. Russell was the entry point for black people in the city to embrace the Celtics, a legacy obscured by the racism of school desegregation in the 1970s and the polarizing Larry Bird era of the 1980s when the Celtics symbolized whiteness. Dennis Johnson, who Russell drafted with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1977, died in 2007. Jo Jo White in 2018. KC Jones died in 2020. Sam Jones died in 2021.
Reverence, understanding and respect should have a permanent place in our discourse, but it will only be a few hours before professionals and amateurs start making lists again – and fighting for them. The proceedings will resume and Russell will be obscured because he averaged just 15.1 points in his career per game and shot only 44% from the floor, and there were so many missed shots at the Back then he of course averaged 22.5 rebounds. Even Russell’s greatest on-court feat of winning 11 NBA titles in his 13-year career is under constant threat from the criticism that there were only eight NBA teams when Russell won all those championships, and so they were somehow less legitimate than the real today’s championships because the playoffs weren’t endlessly long like they are today.
What makes these attempts at reduction fruitless is Russell himself, because when the noise subsides and the listening begins, what neutralizes the numbers and measurements is the embarrassing uselessness of evaluating Bill Russell without confronting the central fact of his life: he was born a black man in the United States in 1934. It’s a simple and fundamental characteristic possessed by millions of people, thousands of professionals and dozens of legends – but Russell was always different due to his reluctance to let his athletic good fortune be decoupled from his life as a man. America wanted him to indulge in how his victory made them feel, about their city, their team, their moments. They wanted his accomplishments to be celebrated on their terms, while refusing to appreciate his. He wouldn’t let them.
He was part of a legacy of incredible athletes in Oakland, California, only after racism caused his parents to leave his birthplace of Monroe, Louisiana, away from their familiarity and opportunity. He and Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson were classmates at McClymonds High School in West Oakland, the “School of Champions” – the school incredibly also of Curt Flood and Vada Pinson, themselves All -Baseball stars, but only because West Oakland was the part of town in the 1940s where the city’s white rulers forced the overwhelming majority of black people to live.
When Russell arrived in Boston, widely considered the most racist city in America, he did so only because neither St. Louis Hawks ownership nor its white fan base wanted a black star player as their face – even the great Bill Russell, who had just won gold for Team USA at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. The Hawks therefore traded Russell, who made his country famous, to Boston for two white players, Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan.
Russell dominated the NBA, created a new NBA – and a new Boston Celtics team. The Celtics had never reached an NBA Finals before Russell. The team was owned by coach, Red Auerbach, and star, Cousy, who was happy to be the leader, local college hero (Holy Cross) but couldn’t accept – like most great players don’t. can’t – that he was overshadowed by a better teammate. Cousy won six titles with Russell, but none without him. Auerbach won nine titles as a coach, but none as a coach without him.
The city responded to the Celtics’ greatness by not attracting spectators, by humiliating Russell and by revealing whenever it could, the racial double standards of celebrating white stars while simply enjoying its black stars. Russell won two college championships at the University of San Francisco, uneasy with America’s racial order. He won a gold medal for a country whose black children months later needed National Guard protection to go to school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Later that season, in 1957, Russell would win an NBA title for a city whose racial inequalities were so pronounced that in 1974 Boston would look like Little Rock 16 years earlier – and Boston, at least in reputation , really did not recover. Every step of his professional career has been defined by American racism, and the reaction to him for years was that Russell was too bitter, couldn’t overcome the same indignities that millions of black people suffered every day. He was defined for years, not by what was done to him by his homeland, but why he didn’t accept it better.
Sport is filled with empty clichés that lend a superhero shine to the everyday lives of gifted athletes. Iron sharpens iron, they say. Russell’s reaction to his calluses was gaining at a titanic rate. He refused to participate in the pomp while turning slights into dominance, and so there can be no superlatives, no metrics, no numbers, no generational or era comparisons that can account for a life lived, especially a life as furiously pronounced and independent as Bill. Russell’s. There’s no metric to value winning, going 21-0 in win-win games in his final two years in college, the Olympics and the NBA. , when your Massachusetts home is broken into and smeared in feces – like Russell’s was once infamous. For all of his victories, perhaps his greatest triumph was making that separation between man and athletic act impossible, which also made it impossible to see him without seeing America. Russell won eight straight titles, beat the Lakers – always beat them, never lost to them in the Finals – but took Birmingham, Selma and MLK with him. It was his deal, and he was unchanging — you couldn’t celebrate the Celtics beating the 76ers without acknowledging the unequal treatment of him and his people. Russell made sure that one couldn’t be rated without the other – he didn’t exist simply for the entertainment of the public, and by extension, rating him couldn’t be done in good conscience without the audience has to look at themselves. For decades Russell’s dominant narrative was that he was trapped in the bitterness of his time, but that wasn’t quite true. He was released by his refusal to play the game. He did not attend the Celtics’ final championship parade in 1969, even though he was their coach, nor his own Hall of Fame induction. He was far from the city of his fame – and yet was constantly present.
When he wanted to be seen, he was – and for the last 15 years of his life he presented himself as a mighty specter, both laughing and aloof. The NBA renamed the Finals MVP trophy after him. The 2008 Celtics surrounded him like little kids. He has been the living link to the birth of the game – and the consciousness of activism, from Jackie Robinson to Colin Kaepernick, for over half a century. When he didn’t want to be seen, he wasn’t. There is now, since 2013, a statue of Bill Russell, just like there is an Auerbach and a Bird (at least his shoes), a Williams and an Orr.
The days ahead will be filled with tributes to Russell and simplistic debates because, in the end, he was die-hard. Eleven championships. Eight consecutive titles. Standing firm on your principles, regardless of the traditionally high cost, and deciding that there was no cost in extricating yourself from the expectation of performance without respect. It was not Bill Russell who was trapped, but his former environment, his city and his country who were forced to consider their behavior and attitudes, to answer the question of why their greatest champion often wanted nothing to do with them. Even Cousy, decades later, more than half a century too late, wanted to reconcile his first treatment of Russell, then, to the Boston days. He wrote a letter to Russell. Russell never responded. Russell was long past that. It was yesterday. Cousy may still be haunted by everything he didn’t say or do, but Bill Russell was already free.