As players and fans alike packed into Smoothie King Center for the 2014 NBA all-star game, the festivities paused for just a few moments to celebrate one man’s 80th birthday. At the end of the first quarter, everyone in the stadium, sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to a man whose name is synonymous with the finals’ MVP award. As always, Bill Russell silently acknowledged the crowd in his own graceful, yet powerful manner. As the stars of the game shook his hand, Russell had words of advice for the league’s defending MVP, the same man who days earlier had declared his very own ‘Mount Rushmore’ of basketball, saying he believed he would one day be there as well but failing to mention the 11-time NBA champion, Bill Russell.
“Hey, thank you for leaving me off your Mount Rushmore,” Russell said to LeBron. “I’m glad you did. Basketball is a team game. It’s not for individual honors. I won back-to-back state championships in high school, back-to-back NCAA championships in college, I won an NBA championship my first year in the league, an NBA championship my last year, and nine in between. And that, Mr. James, is etched in stone.”
Who was this gray-haired, age-old man who dared to speak to the greatest basketball player in the world like this? One might well wonder who in the world had the right to lecture LeBron James on the game of basketball; who could possibly have the expertise or authority to speak in this manner during the all-star game to the greatest all star of them all? But, as the thousands of fans around him cheered the birthday of the man across from him, LeBron had to admit that day that he was getting a lesson from a true legend, one far greater than himself who had lived the lessons LeBron had yet to learn.
It seems strange to us, today, to talk about guys like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Oscar Robertson. We hear about the legacies these guys created, the ridiculous talents they displayed on the court, but we disregard those talents as tokens of a different age and a different game. We forget, however, that players like Bill Russell left more on the court than his 11 titles and five MVP nominations; we forget that basketball in the times of the old greats was so much more than the game itself. It wasn’t just about winning rings or making money. It was about liberation, freedom in a time of oppression, and it was about justice for the voiceless.
Bill Russell was not just a basketball player any more than Jackie Robinson was just a baseball player. He was one of a select group of men and women throughout history who have been able to transcend their occupation, to simultaneously change the sport and the world. Arriving in the NBA in the 50s, Russell was bred in a racist world, a world where he was always viewed as second-class no matter how good he was. In college, he was marked as a second-rate player despite being the first black basketball player to win back-to-back NCAA titles. Even after arriving in Boston, Russell was marked off as inferior to his white counterparts; Celtic fans refused to come to games to watch a black center lead their team. No matter how much success Russell had, it didn’t matter: he was still black, still just a sideshow to the white players who dominated the media. The year after he won the league MVP, a fan in Boston approached him in the street and asked him how the Celtics could possibly survive after losing their white point guard, Bob Cousy. He was never given the respect he deserved, as the best basketball player on the planet, because of his skin color.
Russell refused to accept the prevalent racist paradigm that had put him in a box from day one of his career. Off the court, he vocally denounced racism time and time again, and even joined the Black Power movement. He also found ways to be his own breed of civil rights activist on the court. When a restaurant in Kentucky refused service to Russell and his black teammates, he refused to play in the game that day. It wasn’t just about racism; when the NBA looked like they were going to prevent players from unionizing, he refused to play. He found ways to use his influence on the court to make people across the country hear him. He was impossible to ignore. When he became the first African-American coach in the NBA, he declared that to him, race would not matter, for value in the basketball court is talent and hard-work, not skin color.
So when Bill Russell told LeBron James that basketball is for the team, not the individual, perhaps he was just sharing a minute slice of a grander philosophy that defined the life of Bill Russell: win on the court, but not if it means losing off the court. Play hard, but never forget that you are a human before a basketball player. Russell’s legacy as an NBA player is unprecedented. He won the NBA championship over 8/10 of the years he played in the league and he broke NBA records in rebounding again and again while practically inventing his own strand of dominant defense. But the reason Bill Russell is on my Mount Rushmore goes way beyond that. Bill Russell is an NBA legend because he never forgot that some things are simply more important than basketball.