Bill Russell was unique. He was obsessed with bees and golf and was a sharp contrast to other NBA superstars.
The greatest winner in the history of team sports passed away Sunday at 88 years old but left an unmatched legacy. Winning 11 championships in 13 years with the Boston Celtics, was the first Black head coach in the NBA, the first Black coach to win an NBA title, the first and only player/coach in league history, and a Hall of Famer both as a player and a coach, NCAA champion, member of the league’s 75th-anniversary team, and the namesake of the NBA Finals MVP award.
I’ll repeat, Bill Russell left an unmatched legacy. But something we ignore is his unique personality and unique approach to life itself.
Like many NBA superstars hounded by fans and souvenir bandits for autographs, Russell hated autograph requests. He usually turned them down. But what separated him from other all-time greats wasn’t that he didn’t want to be bothered by fans – he tried to interact with them more. His response to fans asking for his signature usually resulted in him asking them to join him at the table to converse about life.
A few did take him up on his request, but the majority didn’t; they declined.
As mentioned, Russell had an obsession with golf. He studied the mating habits of bees, which he wrote an entire column on once before. He loved expensive cars with expensive, high-quality speaker systems so he could play his favorite music.
“His mind was bigger than basketball,” author Taylor Branch, who spent about a year living with Russell near Seattle in the 1970s while working with him on a book, “And so was his personality, as great as he was in basketball.”
Russell was just different, man. He was so involved in other walks of life, the walks of life that actually boil down to something of substance (not to knock basketball), but here’s a brief list of some of the things he did outside of basketball.
He stood alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, during the heart of the civil rights movement. He was front and center in the audience when King delivered the “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington in 1963. Russell also marched in Mississippi after civil rights leader Medgar Evers was killed. He was a lead supporter of Muhammad Ali when he refused to go to Vietnam. He was a pioneer in the conception of the National Basketball Association. President Barack Obama awarded a much taller Bill Russell in 2011 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players and made possible the success of so many who would follow,” Obama said that day. “And I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell, the player, but Bill Russell, the man.”
Russell once got asked a question about being a Black star in Boston, a city with a complicated history when it comes to race. The premise was that it had to be difficult for Russell to live in such a place, to play for fans in such a city.
“What I ascribed to do, and I did quite well, is every time I came into an adversarial situation, I decided to take control of it so that if a guy came up to me and tried to give me a bad day, I made sure that he was the one who left with the bad day,” Russell said. “And so, to do this took thought, planning and discretion, and intelligence. That was the way I conducted my life.”
Bill Russell was a pioneer for the sport, one of the best to play the sport, but from everything we saw, he was a better person that cared about his people and our society.
“He had such curiosity about human nature, about psychology,” Branch said. “It was a treasure for me to be around Bill and see how he viewed the world in all of its dimensions.”
He may have passed on Sunday, but his legacy will live on.
Excellent! Unmatched greatness!