William Felton Russell made his living in a profession that judges success by an unequivocal bottom line: Winning. How much of that did you do?
Bill Russell by that measure was simply the greatest, most accomplished professional athlete in the history of North American team sports. There were not enough fingers and thumbs for his 11 NBA championships including eight in a row as the centerpiece of the dynastic Boston Celtics from 1956 to 1969.
Add an Olympic gold medal, two NCAA championships and two high school state titles and see the most gilded winner of them all. All sports. All time.
So it seems impossible to say this truth about Russell as we reflect on an epic life that ended peacefully Sunday at age 88, wife Jeannine by his side at their Seattle-area home:
Winning wasn’t what needs to be mentioned first when his greatness and importance is parsed.
He would become an NBA star, but was never that first or only.
He was a Black man in America, first and always, hardened by the injustice around him and fighting it all his days. He was never a greater champion than as a champion of social justice.
“Today, we lost a giant,” tweeted former President Barack Obama on Sunday.
From the family’s statement announcing his passing:
“For all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life. 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...”
Oh yeah: He also was a five-time NBA MVP who averaged 22.5 rebounds a game in his career.
As a kid in South Florida but born in Massachusetts, I latched on to those dynastic Celtics as my first favorite basketball team, some three decades before the Heat came along. Russell and John Havlicek were my guys, along with Sam Jones, who had that sweet bank shot of the glass.
The boy in me was seeing just the great defender, shot blocker and rebounder in Russell, not the struggle, not the man who had such a complicated relationship with Boston for its racist side. He’d sometimes hear slurs shouted to him from fans. Celtics fans.
Russell lived then in Reading, a suburb just north of Boston.
“Police cars followed me often,” he wrote for SLAM Magazine in 2020. “I looked into buying a different house in a different neighborhood, but people in that neighborhood started a petition to persuade the seller not to sell to me.”
To the star of the champion Celtics.
Russell took on the cause of outspokenness, of civil rights; he marched with Martin Luther King Jr., because those were his rights he was fighting for, the rights of the oppressed.
Russell’s journey that ended gilded in gold and wrapped in championships began born in deeply segregated West Monroe, Louisiana in 1934.
He sat in the back seat of his father’s car in a filling station to hear his Dad refused service until after all of the white customers were served first. When Charles Russell attempted to leave the line and find another station, the gas jockey stuck a shotgun in his face and ordered him to stay.
Young Bill also recalled walking outside once with his mother, who wore a fancy white dress. A white policeman accosted her, and ordered her to go home and change out of what the cop called “white women’s clothing.”
That was his childhood, growing up without much in housing projects.
That was still his life years later, as an NBA champion, waiting for the next racial slur that might tumble anonymously from somewhere in the home crowd at a time, and in a city, struggling with the idea of desegregation.
Russell in his life would become the greatest champion American team sports has ever seen, but he was never that more than he was a man of untiring social activism and high and unflinching principles.
Old age mellowed him. He became softer of nature, known for that distinctive raspy laugh of his, and an easy smile. But the scars that drove his lifelong activism were never something he tried to hide, or pretend weren’t there.
When being a Hall of Fame athlete and an all-time champion isn’t even what you did best or where your legacy should start, you have had a monumental life worthy of not just praise, but also thanks.
A diversity report found the NBA posting nearly across-the-board gains in hiring of minorities and women after a small, one-year dip in its overall grade. Wednesday’s report card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida assigned an overall A grade, with an A-plus for racial hiring and a B-plus for gender hiring. The report annually examines positions for franchises as well as in league leadership, with this study using data to cover the 2021-22 season. A year earlier, the league saw its overall grade dip slightly to a B-plus despite its status as the leader among men’s professional leagues evaluated by TIDES.
Jose Barrero hit a tiebreaking RBI single in Cincinnati’s three-run fifth inning, and the Reds stopped a five-game slide with an 8-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs. Aristides Aquino hit a three-run drive for Cincinnati, and Austin Romine doubled home two runs. It was Aquino’s first homer since he hit two against the Cubs on May 23. It was the Reds’ highest scoring game since an 8-2 victory over Baltimore on July 30. Joel Kuhnel pitched two scoreless innings for the win.
Cristian Javier threw six shutout innings, Alex Bregman hit a two-run homer and the Houston Astros swept the Oakland Athletics with a 6-3 win. Bregman’s 16th homer against Cole Irvin was his second straight day with a two-run shot in the first. He also hit an RBI double in the seventh. Jose Altuve doubled home two runs in the second as the AL West leaders built a big early lead in their fourth consecutive victory. Javier allowed one single and walked three in his first win since July 1.
Drew Rasmussen took a perfect game into the ninth inning, and the Tampa Bay Rays expanded their lead over Baltimore for the final AL wild card to 1 1/2 games with a 4-1 victory over the Orioles. Rasmussen allowed his first baserunner when Jorge Mateo doubled down the left-field line on the first pitch of the ninth. Mateo later scored on a Rasmussen wild pitch. Jason Adam got two outs for his sixth save, finishing a one-hitter.
AJ Pollock and Andrew Vaughn homered, Lance Lynn threw six solid innings and the Chicago White Sox beat the Detroit Tigers 5-3 to complete a three-game sweep. Pollock, Eloy Jiménez and José Abreu each had two hits for the White Sox, who remained 2 1/2 games behind AL Central-leading Cleveland. Harold Castro homered and Javier Báez had two hits for the Tigers, who have dropped seven straight and 10 of 11. The White Sox climbed to three games over .500 for the first time since April 17, when they were 6-3.
The booing has begun, and it’s only the preseason. The Cleveland Browns expect it to intensify in the months ahead. Deshaun Watson is a target, and so are his teammates. As they prepare for Watson to be suspended by the NFL for violating its personal conduct policy, the Browns know they’re probably going to be subjected to rougher and rowdier treatment from fans during road games this season. Watson was booed throughout his exhibition debut on Friday in Jacksonville, where some in the crowd directed profane chants at the controversial quarterback accused of sexual misconduct by two dozen women during massage therapy appointments. All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio said the team is adopting a ‘Cleveland against the world’ mentality.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Drew Rasmussen took a perfect game into the ninth inning, and the Tampa Bay Rays expanded their lead over Baltimore for the final AL wild card to 1 1/2 games with a 4-1 victory over the Orioles on Sunday.
Member of the Boston Celtics' 1966 Championship team Bill Russell is honored at halftime of a game between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat at TD Garden on April 13, 2016, in Boston. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images/TNS)