Our family sits around the kitchen table. Dinner reaches a conclusion.
It is 1969, a lazy summer evening at the lake. The sun slides slowly behind the surrounding hills, the best part of my day still to come.
I pepper my father with questions. Just turned 11 years old, already a sports junkie, my mind bounces from topic to topic. I have so much to ask him, so much to consider. Already he is a very accomplished coach, a stickler for details and work ethic while building successful high school rugby and track squads year after year.
Via his answers, via stories and anecdotes, the lessons come thick and fast, even if I take some time to comprehend all of them. Basic skills are critical for success he tells me. Likewise, fitness is non-negotiable. I should be strong, fast, and able to run all day.
Then there are the various intangibles. I must aim to be the best at those things which require no talent. Compete. Be coachable. Be unselfish. Bring effort, energy, attitude, and positive body language
He constantly stresses the value of the little things, all those bits and pieces that don’t figure in a game summary or box score. For him, diving on a loose ball, taking a charge, making an extra pass, is more value than a goal, try, or basket itself. He never fails to laud and acknowledge the blockers, screeners, and tacklers, the “blue collar” workers so vital for success.
He further espouses the importance of core values, such as resiliency, loyalty, discipline, and honesty. Most of all, he appreciates the concept of team, of working together to achieve a common goal. In order to perform at a high level. In order to win.
Two hours fly by. It is almost time for bed. I have one final query. Who is your favourite all-time athlete??
I expect some delay as my father weighs up any number of possible candidates. Instead, he replies instantly.
This catches me somewhat off guard, as my father is not necessarily a basketball guy. However, who am I to doubt him?
Relatively new to hoops, I learn quickly about a legend who not only redefines his sport but whose list of accolades stretches for miles.
Incredibly, in a glittering 13 year career, from 1956 to 1969, Russell leads the Boston Celtics to an unheard of 11 NBA titles. These in addition to previously capturing two NCAA championships with the University of San Francisco Dons and a gold medal for USA at the Melbourne Olympics.
Proud, tough, intense, selfless, Russell is never interested in personal glory. Only the team, and its success, matters to him.
Never a particularly high scorer, his fortes involve rebounding and defence. In this regard, my father points to his shot blocking. Never for the 6’10” Russell a massive swat of an opponent’s shot, followed by some self-congratulatory strutting, posing and finger wagging. Rather, when protecting the rim, thanks to his impeccable timing, he would simply deflect the ball on its path, regather it before it could go out of bounds. Then start the feared Celtic fast break with a crisp outlet pass.
Though he plays in an era before Defensive Player of the Year awards, it is certain he would have won several. Significantly, based as it was fifty plus years ago on votes by his peers, he is named league MVP five times. A 12-time All-Star to boot, not that he would have cared. Furthermore, he earns his last two NBA titles as a player-coach, the first black head coach appointed in any major American sport. While the very fact the league now names its playoff MVP award after him further underlines his enduring excellence.
Russell also wins massive respect for playing his best when it matters most. As part of a dazzling resume, he finds a special gear in playoff Game 7s, going a remarkable 10-0 in these series’ deciders.
Still, my father’s admiration runs so much deeper. He points out that, though subject to extreme discrimination throughout his career, even in Boston, Russell never fails to stand firmly against bigotry and injustice. That, as the league’s first black superstar, whether boycotting a game in Kentucky in 1961 when teammates were denied service at a restaurant, years later marching with Martin Luther King, or supporting Muhammad Ali’s refusal to enter the military draft, his record of activism and civil rights advocacy is substantial.
In these ways and more, he helps change how people view sport and life in a racially divided country.
Russell retires from the NBA in 1969 but remains a looming presence. If at times prickly, he also possesses a warm sense of humour, reflected in a trademark cackle. Yet, he remains deadly serious about basketball, using his position as the sport’s most venerated champion to amplify his political actions.
Decorations continue to come thick and fast, much to my father’s satisfaction. He delights in Russell’s #6 jersey retirement by the Celtics, his place on multiple NBA anniversary All-time teams, his being named, in 1980 by the Basketball Writers Association, as the league’s greatest ever player. Russell is also inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. Not surprisingly, he initially declines this award, waiting decades before accepting. For him, it is far more important that the first black pioneers in the league are properly recognized.
If stints in the mid-1970s as a coach with Seattle and then Sacramento prove somewhat unfulfilling, Russell’s place in history remains secure. A leader in society, he subsequently features as a colour commentator, a radio and television talk show host, a newspaper columnist. His uncompromising, dignified and principled viewpoints make an impact, his vigorous advocacy for respect and equality a legacy passed down to generations of NBA players and so many others who follow in his footsteps. In 2011, he wins the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
A few days ago, at the ripe old age of 88, Bill Russell passes away. An icon in every way, shape, and form.
My father is also gone. Still, in my dreams, together we leave our kitchen table and travel to Boston. We check out the statue of Russell erected near City Hall. The nearby blocks of granite are festooned with quotes on leadership, honour, sacrifice, competitive spirit, courage, and character.
I give thanks for lessons taught, some learned. And for qualities all can try to emulate, as athletes but more importantly as people.