Bill Russell has died at 88.
That high-pitched, raspy, immediately recognizable cackle.
That’s my first and foremost memory of Bill Russell.
Normally, an obituary is full of accolades about the recently passed individual. There will be some about their life, their education, their career, and, especially with athletes, their post-career life.
If you’re here on CelticsBlog, you know who Bill Russell was. Many of you reading this can probably rattle off a catalog of stats, facts and figures about the greatest winner in the history of team sports simply from memory.
A lot you probably also know that Bill Russell wasn’t beloved by all in Boston. That some did everything they could to run him out of town. And they didn’t do it because Russell didn’t win enough. Russell won championships in 11 of his 13 years as a player.
Many in Boston hated Russell simply because he was Black. And not only was Bill Russell Black, but he wasn’t a silent Black man either. He spoke up often about injustices he faced, his teammates faced, his family faced, his friends faced and his fellow Black Americans faced.
If you cruise social media today, you’ll see a lot of people talking about Russell’s accolades as a player and a coach. You’ll see even more talking about what an incredible person Russell was in his non-basketball life.
That’s a life well lived.
Russell was synonymous with those early Boston Celtics teams. When Russell showed up in 1956, he was fresh off back-to-back NCAA championships at the University of San Francisco. In the summer between winning the 1956 NCAA title and starting his rookie year with the Celtics, Russell helped lead Team USA to the gold medal at the 1956 Summer Olympics. (An aside: there was an argument about whether Russell was still an amateur when those Olympic Games started. He had already signed a contract with the Celtics at that point. Russell famously said that if he was denied playing basketball in the Olympics, he simply would have competed in the high jump instead. And many believe he would have medaled in that event too.) And then he led Boston to their first ever championship in 1957.
In a matter of a year, Russell won an NCAA title, an Olympic gold medal and an NBA title.
And then he never really stopped winning.
Russell accumulated more rings than he had fingers to put them on. Imagine that? So many championship rings that you run out of fingers.
Russell was such a dominant winner that the NBA named the NBA Finals MVP award after him in 2009. At the time, many said “This should have happened years ago.”
Russell was never about individual accolades, though. He was always about the team. But the individual accolades came anyway.
12 All-Star nods. 11 All-NBA teams. Five MVP awards. Member of the 25th, 50th and 75th NBA Anniversary teams.
Russell was also the first Black head coach in NBA history. He won two championships for the Celtics in the player-coach role.
In 2011, Russell was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In recent years, Russell reconciled with Boston and with Celtics fans. He allowed his jersey to be re-retired in 1999. He eventually accepted his Hall of Fame ring in 2019. Russell also made several appearances in Boston after avoiding the Celtics and the city for large portions of his retirement.
When Kevin Garnett was traded to Boston, Russell did a famous interview with Garnett.
Russell told Garnett that if he didn’t win a championship with the Celtics, but if Garnett played the way he should with Boston, Russell would share one of his titles with Garnett.
In that interview, Russell also said “My only interest was in winning the games. I wanted to win all of the games.”
In that video you also hear that laugh. That distinctly Bill Russell laugh.
My dad has memories of Russell playing from when he was a kid. He grew up on those Celtics teams. He continually reminds me that no team was ever, or will ever, be as good as the Celtics he grew up on. And he likes to also remind me that Russell was the leader of those teams and how he always knew Russell was going to come through when it mattered most.
21-0 in must-win games between NCAA, Olympics and NBA play. There was no safer way to make sure you were going to win when it mattered most than to have Bill Russell on your team.
I was too young to have watched Bill Russell play. I grew up on the stories from my dad and my uncles. Oh, the arguments we had about Russell vs Havlicek vs Bird for the greatest Celtic ever. The kind of thing you argue about when the light of a summer day and the smells of the cookout are equally fading away. And, because we’re all Celtics fans, we’d end with a laugh about how good we have it that these were our arguments.
Getting to meet Russell just once, very briefly, to tell him that he was my dad’s favorite player was a memory I’ll always have. And his reply of “Your dad was a smart kid then”, followed by that big smile and that unique laugh was the best of all.
A life lived with hardship, struggle and a never-ending fight for equality. But always winning. And always finding a way to laugh.
We lost a Celtic. We lost a winner. We lost a great athlete. We lost a tireless fighter for what really matters. We lost a great person, who happened to be pretty good sports.
And we lost that laugh.
That high-pitched, raspy, immediately recognizable cackle. Forever ingrained in the memory of fans everywhere and forever treasured. Rest in peace and power Bill Russell. The world is a little less full today, but so much fuller for having had you in it.