- - Monday, August 1, 2022

Bill Russell will no longer walk this earth, but his words and deeds will resonate for years to come.

He passed away Sunday at the age of 88, and a generation that worships at the three-point line suddenly woke up to learn about the life in the paint and the championship exploits of the greatest winner in sports.

Russell, a Hall of Famer and 12-time All-Star, was the heart and soul of the great Boston Celtics teams that won 11 NBA championships — eight consecutive titles — from 1956 to 1969. He also won two NCAA championships at the University of San Francisco in 1955 and 1956 and an Olympic gold medal in 1956.

According to the great Boston sportswriter, Bob Ryan, over a 14-year-span, through college and the NBA, Russell participated in 21 winner-take-all contest games — nine NCAA tournament games, one Olympic gold medal game, 10 Game 7s and one deciding Game 5 — and didn’t play on a losing team in one of them.

I could have written he didn’t lose any of them, but that would have offended Russell. One of the greatest players in basketball history recognized it is, when the game is played right, a team accomplishment.

His San Francisco college team went 14-7 in his sophomore year, even though he believed they had the talent to be one of the best teams in the country. “I’ve never forgotten that sophomore season in all the succeeding years of argument about who the best all-time basketball players have been,” Russell wrote in “Second Wind,” his 1979 biography. “It’s a big temptation for me to judge a player by the won-loss record of the teams he’s played with. It’s not hard to see why. My high school teams lost only three games in the three seasons I played. On our Northwest tour the California All-Stars lost only one game, and that was to a college team. My freshman team at USF had a record of 19-4, and during my last two college seasons we went 57-1, with two NCAA championships.

“Then I went touring in Latin America with a team that won almost 30 games without losing one,” Russell wrote. “After playing on an undefeated Olympic team, I spent 13 years in the NBA. In 12 of those years, the Celtics reached the finals of the playoffs, and in 11 of them, we won the championship, including eight in a row.

“I was the only player who was in all those places, so I suppose I could say, ‘Well, I’m the reason,’” Russell wrote. “But my sophomore year in college showed me otherwise. We had wall-to-wall jerks on that team, and we couldn’t win. I played my heart out, but our team was riddled with dissension, and I was part of it. I was not strong enough to change the atmosphere for the better, and the team wasn’t strong enough to change me, so we feuded. There were bad feelings among almost all the players, so though everyone played well, we still lost. Sometimes, I’m haunted by the thought that my whole career could have been like that one season if certain ingredients hadn’t changed … that’s one reason why I still have strong feelings about individual honors in team sports, especially one like basketball in which it’s vital that individual skills mesh together.”

This man, who won on nearly every team he played on, was haunted by one season of failure. That speaks volumes of his legacy as a winner.

I went back to look at my copy of “Second Wind” — co-authored by Taylor Branch, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his trilogy of books chronicling the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. — to remind myself not of Russell’s basketball accomplishments, but of the events that shaped the life that was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 — lessons that are relevant today.

He recalled a book he read at the age of 13 in the Oakland Public Library about American history and a particular passage about slavery. “Despite the hardships they suffered, most slaves enjoyed a higher standard of living and a better life in America than they had in their primitive African homeland.”

Sounds like a page out of a proposal to the Texas State Board of Education.

“I had to get up and walk out of the library,” Russell wrote. “For weeks afterward, I went around in a fog. The sentence stunned me. There it was, written plainly, that people were better off here as slaves than they had been as free people at home. I couldn’t believe anyone had the nerve to say something like that, especially in a history book.”

Russell also recounted the first time his grandfather came to see him play in the NBA — and how it would have a lasting impact on him.

His grandfather was in the Celtics locker room after the game and Russell saw him crying. He had seen John Havlicek and Sam Jones in the shower. “I never thought I’d live to see the day when water would run off a White man onto a Black man, and the water would run off a Black man onto a White man …. I’ve been to church all of my days, but I never thought I’d see anything like this.”

What many of us take for granted was a life-defining moment for Russell. He would take those life lessons and build a legacy off the court.

For his loved ones, that’s where he made the biggest difference. 

“For all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life,” the family statement said. “From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to unmask too-long-tolerated discrimination, to leading Mississippi’s first integrated basketball camp in the combustible wake of Medgar [Evers’] assassination, to decades of activism ultimately recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom … Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor that he intended would disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change.”

• Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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