When it comes to the game of basketball, William Felton Russell is arguably the greatest winner in the sport’s history.
Prior to the start of his professional career, Russell led the University of San Francisco (USF) men’s basketball team to two consecutive NCAA Championships (1955, 1956) and won a gold medal at the 1956 Summer Olympics as captain of the United States National Team.
After the Boston Celtics acquired him in a draft-day trade with the St. Louis Hawks, Russell became the centerpiece of a team that won 11 NBA Championships in thirteen seasons, including an unprecedented eight consecutive titles between 1959 and 1966.
During this dominating, dynastic run, Russell also served a three-season stint as player-coach for the Celtics, becoming first African-American head coach in NBA history.
Russell retired from the game in 1969 with career averages of 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds per game, as well as five Most Valuable Player Awards and 12 All-Star appearances to his credit.
But despite his myriad of accomplishments, Russell’s life was marked by an uphill battle against racism, beginning in his childhood when he was forced to witness his parents become such victims of bigotry and racial abuse that they had to move into housing projects for an escape.
In his memoir, Go Up for Glory, Russell poignantly recalled his feelings on the racism and segregation that pervaded his existence, even as a standout amateur basketball player at USF and a superstar for the Celtics.
It stood out, a wall which understanding cannot penetrate. You are a Negro. You are less. It covered every area. A living, smarting, hurting, smelling, greasy substance which covered you. A morass to fight from.
As a consequence, Russell became a passionate and unyielding crusader for civil rights, which also resulted in a bitter relationship with the city of Boston due to his programmed hypersensitivity to racial prejudice in all its forms.
Russell’s bad rapport with fans and journalists, stemming from his refusal to respond to acclaim or friendship, caused him to be characterized as egotistical, hypocritical and paranoid.
In addition, seeing himself as a victim of the media, Russell was neither present for the retirement of his Number 6 jersey at the Boston Garden in 1972 nor his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975.
However, with the re-retirement of Russell’s jersey at the TD Garden in 1995 and the receipt of a ‘We Are Boston’ Leadership Award in 2008, ceremonies which Russell did attend, a small measure of reconciliation was achieved, but, to some extent, the wounds from a long history of racial strife remained fresh.
Therefore, it was fitting that Barack Obama, the first African-American president in United States history, endorsed an idea that many view as a way for Boston to put a difficult past, with one of its greatest sports heroes, completely behind them.
Obama’s remarks came during a ceremony in which Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the country, for his legacy as a civil rights activist.
Russell is the seventh African-American sports figure, and first basketball player, to receive the award. The Monroe, La. native was among 14 recipients to be honored, including President George H.W. Bush, poet Maya Angelou, investor Warren Buffet and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial.
Below is the official White House transcript of Obama's remarks about Russell:
When Bill Russell was in junior high, he was cut from his basketball team. (Laughter.) He got better after that. (Laughter.) He led the University of San Francisco to two championships. In 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, he won 11 championships -- a record unmatched in any sport. Won two while also serving as the team’s coach. And so happens, he also was the first African American ever to hold such a position as a coach in a Major League sports team of any sort. More than any athlete of his era, Bill Russell came to define the word "winner."
And yet, whenever someone looks up at all 6 feet 9 inches of Bill Russell -- I just did -- (laughter) -- I always feel small next to him -- and asks, "Are you a basketball player?" -- surprisingly, he gets this more than you think, this question -- (laughter) -- he says, "No." He says, "That’s what I do, that’s not what I am. I'm not a basketball player. I am a man who plays basketball."
Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men. He marched with King; he stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players, and made possible the success of so many who would follow. And I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.