Chalk up another victory for the greatest winner in sports history.
William Felton Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last week. The United States’ highest civilian award recognizes men and women who have “made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Bill Russell certainly qualifies. We begin with the official statement from the White House: “Bill Russell is the former Boston Celtics’ captain who almost single-handedly redefined the game of basketball.
“Russell led the Celtics to a virtually unparalleled string of eleven championships in thirteen years and was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times.
“The first African American to coach in the NBA-indeed he was the first to coach a major sport at the professional level in the United States — Bill Russell is also an impassioned advocate of human rights.
“He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and has been a consistent advocate of equality.”
Whenever I’m asked to name the greatest basketball player I ever saw, there’s no hesitation: Bill Russell.
He won NCAA, Olympic, and NBA championships within a year. Sports Illustrated named Russell the greatest team player in history, and his Celtics as the greatest team of the 20th century.
He was also named the greatest winner of all time by HBO, and named the most important college player and pro player by John Wooden, who knew a thing or two about basketball.
Team player? During the 1961-’62 NBA season, Wilt Chamberlain, Russell’s foil, averaged over 50 points per game. Yet Russell’s Celtics won the championship, and Russell won the MVP.
Make no mistake, Russell had an ego. All the great ones do, but his was a team ego. “My ego demands — for myself — the success of my team,” he wrote in his book, Russell Rules. “The only regrets I have are about those two years the Celtics didn’t win.
“My career was never about personal statistics. It was never about contracts or money. I never paid attention to MVP awards or how many endorsements I had lined up. Only how many titles we won.”
In fact, it’s so much about team with Russell that he has never visited the basketball Hall of Fame, not even for his own enshrinement. This despite the fact that he was the first African American so honored. The Hall, you see, honors individual achievements.
Similarly, he refused to attend a ceremony at Boston Garden to retire his famous number six. His old coach and friend, Red Auerbach, wondered why. “I never played for the fans,” Russell wrote in Russell Rules. “I played for myself and for my team. I told Red I felt honored to have my number retired, but that was something I could in good conscience only do with my teammates.
“Everything I had done, I had done with them, and with no one else. So what Red then proposed was that the ceremony take place before the game, prior to the time when fans were admitted to the building, with only my teammates and him in attendance. That I gladly agreed to.”
Team player? Russell created the art of shot-blocking. Today’s players revel in observing their blocks sail into the crowd. Not Russell. He’d leap up and hit the side of the ball, causing it to spin and stop in mid-air. Then the ball would drop into his hands, and he’d toss an outlet pass to ignite the Celtics’ famed fast break.
Even on the break, Russell thought team first. “I could run the break like a point guard, going right up the middle, weaving in and out of traffic,” Russell wrote. “But then, one night, while I was leading a break up the floor, I noticed Bob Cousy over my shoulder, running behind me.
“Bob Cousy to this day is the best I’ve ever seen in the NBA at running a fast break. What I was inadvertently doing was taking him out of his game, out of what he did best.
“What I did after that was to give Cousy the ball as soon I got it, and then fill the lane so he could go to work. That way, I was helping him to play his game, which was exactly what our team needed.”
Bill Russell has always been a role model, dignified, filled with integrity, straightforward, brutally honest, unwavering, original.
And while he was thrilled to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he duly noted that it wasn’t the greatest honor he has received.
“When he was about 77, my father and I were talking,” Russell told George Vecsey of the New York Times recently. “And he said, ‘You know, you’re all grown up now, and I want to tell you something. I am very proud of the way you turned out as my son, and I’m proud of you as a father.’
“My father is my hero, OK? I cannot perceive of anything topping that.”