- Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
- Author of “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron”
- Author of “Juicing the Game”
We live in a debate culture, inherently reductive to this or that, to who was best, most, least, greatest. Television, social media or online, ours is a culture of decibels, where people do not often learn as an element of their entertainment. Ears aren’t for listening. They are for glasses.
Within 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 the professionals — or, especially the professionals — are compensated for their ability to mimic fan partisans. Over the past several weeks, former NBA sharpshooter and ESPN analyst J.J. Redick said Bob Cousy, in his day, was being guarded by “plumbers and firemen.” Golden State power forward Draymond Green said he did not see how Michael Jordan’s 1998 Chicago Bulls could have competed with his 2017 Warriors. Bob Cousy, age 93, and Jerry West, 84, protected their time by firing back, Cousy with a joke about how, if true, the NBA must have had the best plumbers and firemen around, West more acerbically reminding Redick he was just a one-dimensional player who was never a star.
Redick dunked on the old-timers. The old-timers dunked back. This is how we communicate.
A casualty of this special 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 is not merely performative for attention but a deliberate conviction. With Russell’s death will come a cease-fire, rhetoric replaced by a temporary reverence, a quiet admiration for his dignity and towering accomplishments and the bittersweet passing of time. Cousy is the only player left from the Celtics’ first championship team, in 1957. Bill Sharman is gone. So, too, is Tommy Heinsohn, and only a few remain — Don Chaney, Don Nelson, Emmette Bryant, for example — of his last, in 1969.
The Black community in Boston will mourn its champion: a player and community grateful for each other 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 where the Celtics symbolized whiteness. Dennis Johnson, whom Russell drafted with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1977, died in 2007. Jo Jo White in 2018. K.C. Jones died in 2020. Sam Jones died in 2021.
Reverence, understanding and respect should have a permanent place in our discourse, but it will be mere hours before professionals and amateurs alike go back to making lists — and fighting over them. The debates will resume and Russell will be obscured because he only averaged 15.1 points over his career per game and only shot 44% from the floor, and there were so many missed shots back then that of course he averaged 22.5 rebounds. Even Russell’s greatest on-court feat of winning 11 NBA titles over his 13-year career is constantly threatened by the criticism there were only eight NBA teams when Russell was winning all those championships, and thus they were somehow less legitimate than the real championships of today because the postseason wasn’t interminably long, as it is today.
What makes these attempts at reduction unsuccessful is Russell himself, for when the noise dims and the listening starts, what neuters the numbers and the metrics is the embarrassing uselessness of assessing Bill Russell without confronting the central fact of his life: He was born a Black man in the United States in 1934. It is a simple and basic characteristic possessed by millions of people, thousands of professionals, and dozens of legends — but Russell was still different because of his unwillingness to let his athletic good fortune be decoupled from his life as a man. America wanted him to indulge how his winning made them feel, about their city, their team, their moments. They wanted his achievements celebrated on their terms, while refusing to appreciate his. He would not let them.
He was part of a heritage of incredible athletes in Oakland, California, only after racism pressured his parents into leaving 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 baseball All-Stars, but only because West Oakland was the part of the city in the 1940s where white city leaders 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 the ownership of the St. Louis Hawks nor its white fan base wanted a star Black player as its face — even the great Bill Russell, who had just won gold for team USA in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. So the Hawks traded Russell, who brought glory to his country, 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 final before Russell. The team belonged to the coach, Red Auerbach, and his star, Cousy, who basked in being the leader, the hero from the local college (Holy Cross) but could not accept — as most great players cannot — that he was being eclipsed 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 failing to draw attendance, by humiliating Russell and revealing whenever it could, the racial double standards of feting white stars while merely appreciating its Black ones. Russell won two college championships at the University of San Francisco, uncomfortable with America’s racial order. He won a gold medal for a country whose Black children several months later required 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 by 1974, Boston would resemble Little Rock from 16 years earlier — and Boston, at least reputationally, really hasn’t recovered. Each stage in his professional career was defined by American racism, and the reaction to him for years was that Russell was too bitter, couldn’t get over the same indignities 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.
Sports is filled with empty cliches that give a superhero’s sheen to the everyday lives of gifted athletes. Iron sharpens iron, they say. Russell’s reaction to his callouses was winning at a titanic rate. He refused to participate in the pomp while turning slights into dominance, and thus, there can be no superlatives, no metrics, no numbers, no generational or era comparisons that can account for a life lived, especially one as furiously pronounced and independent as Bill Russell’s. There is no metric for placing value on winning, on going 21-0 in winner-take-all games over his final two years of college, the Olympics, and NBA, when your Massachusetts home is burglarized and smeared with feces — as Russell’s once infamously was. For all of his victories, perhaps his greatest triumph was making that separation between man and athletic deed 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 carried Birmingham and Selma and MLK with him. This was his bargain, and it was immutable — you could not celebrate the Celtics beating the 76ers without acknowledging the unequal treatment of him and his people. Russell made sure one could not be assessed without the other — he did not exist merely for the public’s entertainment, and by extension appraising him could not happen in good conscious without the public having to look at itself. For decades, the prevailing narrative of Russell was that he was trapped in the bitterness of his time, but that wasn’t exactly true. He was liberated by his refusal to play along. He did not attend the Celtics final championship parade in 1969 even though he was the coach, nor his own Hall of Fame induction. He was distant from the city of his fame — and yet was constantly present.
When he wanted to be seen, he was — and during the last 15 years of his life he stood as a powerful specter, equal parts signature laugh and distant. The NBA renamed the finals MVP trophy after him. The 2008 Celtics surrounded him like little kids. He was the living link to the birth of the game — and the conscience of activism, from Jackie Robinson to Colin Kaepernick, for more than half a century. When he didn’t want to be seen, he wasn’t. There is now, since 2013, a Bill Russell statue, just as there is an Auerbach and a Bird (at least his shoes), a Williams and an Orr.
The coming days will be filled with Russell tributes and reductive debates because, in the end, he was irreducible. Eleven championships. Eight straight titles. Standing solidly on his principles, regardless of the traditionally high cost, and deciding there was no cost of extracting himself from the expectation of performance without respect. It was not Bill Russell who was trapped, but his former surroundings, his city and his country that were forced to reckon with their behavior and attitudes, to answer the question as to why their greatest champion often wanted nothing to do with them. Even Cousy, decades later, more than a half-century too late, wanted to reconcile his early treatment of Russell, the times, the Boston days. He wrote Russell a letter. Russell never responded. Russell was long since past that. That was yesterday. Cousy may still be haunted by all that he did not say or do, but Bill Russell was already free.
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