I was six, in late 1960, when I first was conscious enough to listen to a basketball game on radio. The Celtics handily beat the Cincinnati Royals, and I was hooked. Among the many names I heard for the first time was that of Bill Russell.
Two years later, I moved to San Francisco, but I took Russell and the Celtics with me. As I learned to dribble and shoot, I mouthed their names as I took imagined last-second victory shots, and I embraced an ideal that stays with me 60 years later: reverence of team. Bill Russell’s ultimate gift, to the Celtics and to Boston, remains a very personal gift to me.
Bill Russell was a great player, an even better competitor, the ultimate winner. But I believe he aimed for something higher. He seemed to approach each game with a code of honor that bordered on purity. No one game could be perfect, but his commitment always would be. In 10 years of childhood and as an early teenager, I almost never saw him take a play off. Winners gave their best for him. Others wilted in his presence.
I love this blog today, because new fans see the game with a level of analysis that didn’t exist in my childhood. But I sometimes think Celtics fans don’t appreciate the gift they have in good years and in bad. Our team has a culture of excellence. The fans want victories, but many of us are just as hungry to see the game played the right way—with hard work, passing, alertness, and always defense.
How many fan bases have this expectation at their core? Does anyone talk of Cavs Pride, or Kings Basketball? Even during long title droughts, Celtics fans take this mindset for granted, but often are unconscious of its source. Without Bill Russell, I don’t believe Celtics Pride or Celtics Basketball would have taken root in the first place.
For better or worse, I need to close my memories with a quick thought on race—a topic that arises on this blog from time to time. Another gift to me was that the Celtics, who had more black starters in the early 60s than most NBA teams, were the ultimate example of excellence to me, a young white boy, before I was introduced to racism.
This, of course, did not shield me from the many toxic influences I would later encounter. But it helped that one of my greatest early heroes, and one of my heroes for life, was proudly black. Russell modeled pride, dignity, and fearlessness in every area of his life, including his advocacy of civil rights. Whether he was facing Wilt Chamberlain or Jim Crow, Russell never gave an inch to opponents who only seemed to tower over him.
He will be missed, but never forgotten.