No player, before or since, has dominated the basketball court like Bill Russell did. Russell dominated his life in the same way.
Russell’s longtime coach for the Boston Celtics, Red Auerbach, called him “the single most devastating force in the history of the game.”
Russell did more than use his physique and his physical talents, which were immense. He was 6-feet 10-inches tall, but his tree trunk like figure made him seem much taller, particularly if he was between you and the basketball goal.
He could jump like no other player, but he had the uncanny ability to know when to jump and to know when an opponent was likely to push the ball toward the goal. If he couldn’t get between the ball and the goal, which he often did, then he knew where the ball was going and where it was likely to bounce off the goal or the backboard.
That made him the greatest rebounder the game has ever seen. He collected more than 21,000 rebounds during his playing days.
As he approached the last days of his playing career, he became the player-coach for the Celtics, the first Black coach in the history of the National Basketball Association. As such, he guided his teams to additional NBA championships.
Once he left the court, he became a giant in another field, civil rights. He took part in the 1963 March on Washington and was in the front row when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech. Soon thereafter, he was in Mississippi helping to organize an integrated basketball camp in Jackson. He supported Muhammad Ali when the boxer refused induction in the armed services.
His commitment to the rights of the individual and the dignity of all men and women never wavered. In 2017, when players for the National Football League were coming under intense criticism for kneeling during the national anthem, Russell posted a photo of himself taking a knee and holding the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which President Barack Obama had awarded to him in 2011.
Russell was a complex man, one who was proud, dignified, and cared little for the adulation of the crowd. He knew who he was, and he was determined, no matter what, to be who he was.
Russell died on July 31, 2022. He was 88 years old. The world could do with a few more like him.
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