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NBA

Bill Russell Was The Most Important

Bill Russell at the Celtics arena in 2016
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Bill Russell, who died today at the age of 88, had surely earned the right to live forever, if only to remind everyone on either side of the age divide that some things transcend the biases of time. Russell was the one player who was rarely dragged into the nonsensical “he could never play in today’s era” test that seems to invigorate modern hoopheads, without any of them realizing that they will be yesterday’s generation soon enough. He got a pass because he had earned it in too many ways for too many days.

Russell earned it because he was one of only two players ever to have more championship rings than fingers (the other being the late Montreal Canadiens star Henri Richard). He earned it because he fought racism at the front of the line, in Boston, from his own team’s fans, and wherever else it happened to confront him—unless of course he decided to confront it first. He separated playing for the Celtics from playing for the city and its fans. He was principle and wisdom and strength and fearlessness and cleverness all in one, as explained comprehensively here by his daughter Karen for the New York Times in 1987:

Every time the Celtics went out on the road, vandals would come and tip over our garbage cans. My father went to the police station to complain. The police told him that raccoons were responsible, so he asked where he could apply for a gun permit. The raccoons never came back.

The only time we were really scared was after my father wrote an article about racism in professional basketball for The Saturday Evening Post. He earned the nickname Felton X. We received threatening letters, and my parents notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation. What I find most telling about this episode is that years later, after Congress had passed the Freedom of Information Act, my father requested his F.B.I. file and found that he was repeatedly referred to therein as ”an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children.”

As a player, Russell changed defensive concepts as simple as how to block a shot. He handled Wilt Chamberlain as much as anyone ever did, reducing his dominance while making him feel the sting of defeat until it almost felt like a sentence. Indeed, in his prime he could easily be transported to right now and his mobility, leaping, timing, and brain would make him a force. He’d be a hell of a current-day Warrior. He might well have beaten the Warriors if he were a current-day Celtic.

He saw in Celtics coach Red Auerbach what Auerbach saw in him, and between them they owned a decade and change of a sport struggling to find a foothold in a world more interested in baseball, boxing, and football. They both cheerfully acknowledged that they not only needed each other, but were stronger together than apart. At a time when Boston wouldn’t give Russell the dignity he deserved, Auerbach gave him the power to be all he could be as a player, a teammate and a determinant in the operation of the team. He saw to it that Russell was the highest-paid player in the league, including Chamberlain, without needing to be prompted. Most coaches would have withheld that honor as a motivational cudgel, but Auerbach knew that Russell didn’t need to be motivated. He just needed to be acknowledged for what he had done and was doing. When Auerbach retired, his search for a successor began and ended at Russell’s locker.

Russell was simply the single greatest figure in basketball history, so much so that he is the answer to every historical basketball question ever posed. He was everyone’s contemporary. He did all the things required of an athlete and a citizen before anyone else, and in a culture that is so sport-dependent, it should be said that his citizenship was the best thing about him. He fought because he knew the corrosive elements of inequality. He made cowardice intolerable, and he never let a racist run out on the bill. He is that rarest of creatures, a man who wrote two autobiographies (Go Up For Glory and Second Wind) because one could not possibly contain enough of what he did or who he was.

Bill Russell shouldn’t ever be dead. His deeds should be invoked for as long as we are determined to fall short on our promises to our children, and his books should be made mandatory reading for everyone who can read. There are others for which this could be said, but he was the first and most important. He is the most important now. He’ll be the most important for ages. Even allowing for the tyranny of contemporary memory, Bill Russell is today forever.