Winning was a magnificent obsession that allowed Mr. Russell a prominent platform from which to advocate for social justice and fairness at a time when such stances weren’t universally embraced by fellow citizens.
The tapestry of his life story is that of an American knight. For here was a nobleman of unmatched championship pedigree surpassed only by his societal engagement on many fronts.
- One of his basketball teammates at Oakland’s McClymonds High School was a fellow icon, Frank Robinson.
- He and singer/actor Johnny Mathis were high jump rivals in high school and were considered the two best all-around athletes in the bay area in the early fifties.
- He was a world-class high jumper who could have easily qualified for the 1956 Olympics in track and field. Instead, he led the USA to gold in basketball.
- In thirteen months in 1956-57, he won an unprecedented triple crown of an NCAA title, Olympic gold medal, and NBA world championship.
- He served as one of Jackie Robinson’s pallbearers.
- BU hockey star player and coach Jack Parker wore #6 in Russell’s honor while leading the Terriers to Beanpot glory in the mid-sixties.
- His Celtic contract called for him to be paid one dollar more than Wilt Chamberlain.
- His matchups with Chamberlain represented a compelling subplot to the best rivalry in NBA history.
- In the 21 NBA “win or go home” games in his career he and his teams were undefeated.
His partnership with Red Auerbach assured the dynastic excellence that had each and every Celtic play their roles to perfection. One-time collegiate scoring stars morphed into defensive demons, All-American starters willingly accepted substitute status, and a sporting culture was born were the only statistics.
What mattered were the final scores and the number of world championship banners hung from the girders at Boston Garden.
Russell was the driving force for eight consecutive world championships and eleven in the course of his thirteen-year career.
At the same time, he marched with Dr. King and stood by young Muhammad Ali as the boxer was about to sacrifice a significant portion of his career on principle at the height of the Vietnam war, he protested.
Mr. Russell was a sort of Emperor.
The memoir he wrote with Taylor Branch entitled Second Wind is a masterpiece and will undoubtedly receive a memorial reprint. Likewise, the book he wrote in the midst of his career with Bill McSweeney, Go Up for Glory, is also superb.
He was the consummate team sports champion.
A man of rare humor and insight possessed a trademark cackle.
He once mused on what might happen to him following his death and observed he’d already experienced heaven while playing with his teammates on the Boston Celtics.