Bill Russell will always be linked to the NBA as its textbook definition of excellence after leading the Celtics to 11 titles during his 13-year career. The NBA Finals MVP trophy is named after Russell, and as of last week at his funeral, his No. 6 jersey is the first jersey that the League has retired.
Russell is iconic not only because of his winning as a player and coach (back-to-back titles in ’68 and 69) but because of all he endured as one of the few Black players in the NBA at the time. The Celtics may have been one of the most progressive teams after drafting Russell and other Black players like Sam Jones, Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones and Al Butle, but that contingent of players, especially Russell, had to deal with the racism and bigotry that was prevalent not just in Boston but across the states in general.
The battles he fought on and off the court could’ve made the 11-time champ bitter. Instead, Russell has become the elder statesman of a League that has embraced many legendary and unique players like Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry.
When commissioner Adam Silver sat down with Howard Stern of Sports Illustrated to talk about his bond with Russell, he called the NBA legend “the founding father of the modern NBA.” and the Babe Ruth of the NBA who was able to talk and stand with his current contemporaries.
“He’s sort of the founding father of the modern NBA,” Silver says. “And with that, I think he became the League’s DNA for our players to feel comfortable speaking out on societal issues. I would say a lot of the courage of the modern-day players, there’s a direct through line to Bill, against the whole shut up-and-dribble crowd.”
Silver went on to talk about how much he loved hearing Russell’s story about his playing days, including his disdain for being asked to sign autographs. Silver also spoke about Russell’s fight for civil rights and the big man’s iconic 1961 protest.
Russell and his teammates, Jones, Sanders, and Butle, walked out of an exhibition game after they were refused service in a restaurant in Lexington, KY. Silver also admired Russell’s support for Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who hasn’t played in the NFL since protesting against police brutality during the 2016 season by kneeling during the national anthem.
“He recognized the value of the platform that was afforded him by being an MVP, NBA champion player,” Silver says. “And he was realistic about that — He ultimately decided; obviously, he could do more through the platform that playing offered him. But he tweeted that clearly in support of these players, saying that, ‘I have your back.’ And again, classic Bill, he wasn’t saying that means you shouldn’t be playing—because he kept playing—but it was just saying, ‘I understand. That’s something you all should be thinking about.’”
He also detailed how happy he was to see modern players come up and give their respect to Russell and their reactions as Russell told stories of his playing days with the Celtics.
In the coming days and years, Silver will also make sure to continue to draw inspiration from his friendship with Russell and hopes to one day pass that knowledge on to his two young daughters.
“For whatever my children want to do in their lives, it may have nothing to do with sports, or it may not be something which traditionally you think of as a competition where people get objectively ranked,” Silver says, “but I’d want to teach them that quality of truly being willing to give your all to what you’re passionate about. And that’s the unique quality that Bill had.”
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