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B. Russell leaves legacy of courage, humor

Bill Russell with longtime Boston Celtics head coach Red Auerbach. When Auerbach retired he named Russell to take his place, making him the first Black head coach in the NBA.
Bill Chaplis
/
AP
Bill Russell with longtime Boston Celtics head coach Red Auerbach. When Auerbach retired he named Russell to take his place, making him the first Black head coach in the NBA.

In the wake of the news of the passing of Bill Russell over the weekend, two moments of fairly recent vintage stand out, one of which we’ll share now and the other later, both illustrative of who he was.

In the first, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Charles Barkley are paying tribute to NBA legends at an awards function and Barkley takes a moment to salute Russell and say thanks.

As the camera zooms in on him sitting in the audience, Russell casually flips Barkley the bird without a thought to how it will play on live television, then puckishly grins.

It was all for humor, of course, but the moment symbolized just who William Felton Russell, a man determined to live life on his own terms while showing himself a good time in the process, really was.

The phrase “comfortable in his own skin,” was made for Bill Russell, who confronted the racism of his time head on without fear.

Indeed, the 6-foot-10-inch Russell seemed to relish taking on bigotry and discrimination as much as he enjoyed facing the great big men of his time, some of whom may have been as talented, but none of whom stood larger. In a now celebrated moment, Russell attended a 1967 summit of sorts with other great Black athletes of his day, including Jim Brown, Green Bay Packer Willie Davis and a very young Lew Alcindor.

They were photographed sitting next to and supporting Muhammad Ali, who defied the American government by refusing to submit to the military draft.

At the time. Russell wrote in Sports Illustrated about Ali, saying, quote He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I’m worried about is the rest of us unquote.

You never had to worry about Bill Russell, who died at age 88 as the greatest winner in American team sports. To wit, Russell won two championships at McClymonds High in Oakland, where he was a classmate of Orioles legend Frank Robinson. From there, he won two NCAA championships at the University of San Francisco. He was a member of the 1956 gold medal winning United States Olympic team

It was, of course, in the NBA, where Russell stood tallest, He was the leader of 11 championship Boston Celtics teams as a wiry center, who never averaged 20 points a game, but averaged at least 22 rebounds a game in nine straight seasons.

Later, he became the first Black man to coach or manage a major American professional sports team, guiding the Celtics to two more titles. The NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy is named for Bill Russell and no one could argue.

At another of those televised galas, Russell was on a stage with Abdul-Jabbar, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson and Dikembe Mutombo, Hall of Famers all and all worthy successors to Russell’s stature.

Bill Russell, then well into his 80s with a head full of white hair and using a cane, sized the men up, pointed to each of them, then cupped his left hand and stage-whispered, I would kick your butt, except he didn’t say butt.

Thing is, until Sunday, you’d have believed him.

And that’s how I see it for this week. You can reach us via email with your questions and comments at Sports at Large at gmail.com. And follow me on Twitter at Sports at Large.

Until next week, for all of us here, I’m Milton Kent. Thanks for listening and enjoy the games.

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.