When my dad died in January, the best way I thought to eulogize him was to talk about everything he did. His life was extraordinary. He was a dutiful son who always sent money home when he could; a hard-working immigrant from the Philippines who paved the way for his siblings to make a life for themselves in the United States; a loyal company man who took pride in his job; and a dedicated father and doting grandfather who would do anything to make his family’s life better.
But when my mom passed away eight months later, my perspective changed. It wasn’t because I thought she had done less with her life. Her accomplishments were quieter, always in the background and behind the scenes. She raised three boys abroad, away from any close relatives and old friends. Living in Saudi Arabia, any career aspirations she had were put on hold with very few job opportunities available to her. Instead, she helped build communities in our little town. That meant volunteering at school and getting to know the other families, teaching cooking classes and meeting the other stay-at-home moms, and making sure she always reached out to new Filipino families in the area.
When I spoke at her memorial a few weeks ago, I didn’t necessarily talk about what she did, but what she meant to me growing up. Days after she lost her five-year battle with breast cancer, I brought home her purse from the hospital. In her lifetime, she must have had hundreds of purses, but I realized that they always contained the same things. There was a small corner reserved for her things: lipstick and eye shadow, a pair of sunglasses, and a hair brush.
But the rest was stuff for us – stuff she always carried to take care of us. She always had a wad of Kleenex or napkins for my dad’s coughing fits. During her chemo infusions, she’d buddy up with the nurses and squirrel away as many snacks as she could, not for herself, but for me because she knew that I’d get hungry on the drive home. She always had a stash of my brother’s favorite hard candy and cash (never credit cards) because she insisted on always paying for the gas. No matter how old I got, she was always my mom and that meant the world to me.
This season, the NBA and the Celtics will honor the late Bill Russell. Every team will have his #6 on a patch on their jerseys. Boston will have his number on the parquet at TD Garden and tonight, they’ll wear a special City Edition uniform to commemorate his contributions to the city. On it, there are eleven gold diamond icons representing the eleven championships that Russell was a part of during his illustrious career.
Of course, that’s just what Russell did between the lines. Just like how a box score can hardly encapsulate his effect on the floor, neither can his playing days or the banners they produced define him. That’s not what he meant to the game and more importantly, to history at large. To remember Russell is to not count the rings on his fingers after thirteen seasons as a player and three as a head coach, but to consider his life in totality, to appreciate what he carried in his bag his whole life.
Russell wasn’t just at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. To say that he used his platform as a professional athlete might suggest that he was calculating in his actions. That wasn’t the case. His tall but modest stand was simply just the right thing to do, whether that was boycotting a game in Lexington when his black teammates wouldn’t be served at a restaurant or organizing a strike at the 1964 All-Star Game in order to force the league to implement a pension plan for its players or supporting Muhammed Ali and his refusal to fight in Vietnam. Russell was surely a man of assured action, but the clarity and consistency of his message gave his life meaning beyond basketball or his 88 years.
In retrospect, the title “Win For Bill” seems too small a goal now. If the Celtics raise Banner 18 in a season dedicated to remembering Russell’s legacy, it will be the most poetic of endings. However, to truly honor Russell, we should strive to “Be Like Bill” this season and beyond these next nine months.
Radiate love. Russell was a fierce competitor, but when he finally hung up his sneakers, he was a beacon of goodwill and goodness, including ending his feud with Wilt Chamberlain and becoming good friends with him later in life.
Make every situation better. What made Russell a champion so many times over and then later a champion for social justice was his unwavering commitment to always be an agent of change. On the court, he did all the little things too elevate his teammates and win the game. Off the court, if he saw something wrong, he wasn't afraid to make a difference even if it vilified him in the city he played for.
Be true to the best part of ourselves. Well into his retirement, Russell counseled players, recognizing the strengths in their game and more so, their quality as leaders. If he thought you could do better, he told you straight up. He was an activist, sure, but at his core, he just pushed us all too be a little better every day.
That was winning to Russell. That's what he meant to us.