Bill Russell roared in a deep voice and chatted in a high tone. Oh my goodness, he giggled, often at something he said at the expense of himself.
I always had the pleasure of hearing Russell laugh after he finished telling a story. Everyone around him was smiling, wanting to hear every last word he said.
Russell died Sunday at the age of 88, and what a life he has lived: 11-time NBA champion, five-time Player of the Year and influential voice on social and racial issues, rising from humble beginnings to one of the most celebrated and respected athletes in history.
I’m not going to pretend I know Russell. But I had the opportunity to spend some time around him—in Washington, D.C. the day before he received President Barack Obama’s Medal of Freedom in 2011, at several All-Star Games, and we spoke several times on the phone.
I know someone who was close to Russell, and if you needed a Russell for something (ideally for something big), there was always a good opportunity to talk to him.
It was not only my treatment, it was an honor for me. In this business, you will never feel intimidated by the people you meet. you are doing
With Russell, it was different. I’ve never covered him as a player (I’ve been a year since he was born in his last NBA season) or as a coach or CEO.
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I can’t help but be in awe of who Russell is and what he represents – a first-team champion with a brave social conscience. There aren’t a lot of times in a sports writer’s life where you can spend time with someone like Russell who has been a huge part of NBA and US history.
By the time I began speaking with Russell in early 2010, he was an unqualified candidate. Remember when Russell turned on Charles Barkley at the 2018 NBA Awards? I remember talking to Russell about LeBron James winning MVP in his fourth, and Russell was on the other end of the line throwing F-bombs and I’m trying to stay focused but thinking, “Bill Russell is dropping F-bombs in this interview!”
When Russell got serious, even on the subject of basketball, he had something to say and was always about winning championships and playing teamwork.
“I’ve enjoyed playing with all the guys I’ve played with, and the better they play, the better for me,” Russell told me in 2013 when James won his MVP for the fourth time. “Anyone I played with helped our team win, I loved playing with them. Would I have loved playing with LeBron? Of course.”
At the All-Star Games that Russell attended, I always kept my eyes on him. Often seated next to other basketball stars such as Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Julius Irving, Russell greeted talk star after talk star who came to express his gratitude.
Today’s NBA greats recognized the importance of Russell. Look at the pictures of James and Kobe Bryant receiving their Finals MVP – Bill Russell MVP Award – and you can see the respect they have for him on their faces.
The life philosophy of Russell, who also worked in basketball, was instilled in him by his father, Charlie Russell. “We didn’t have much, but something my father said: ‘It’s not what you give, but what you share, because the gift without the giver is exposed.’ My father’s philosophy was to ‘always share what I have.'”
Russell was aware of his greatness in court compared to others. He told me more than once with a version of this, “What I think about (James) is what I think about Wilt (Chamberlain), and as I once told Wilt, ‘I think I’m the only man on the planet who really knows how good you are because I’ve seen you up close. “
In 2011, an NBA PR employee asked me if I wanted to spend the day with Russell in Washington before he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mostly, I was a fly on the wall in a hotel where CNN’s John King interviewed Russell. I had the opportunity to meet Russell at the end of the restoration, then we proceeded to the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall – where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, in the presence of Russell.
Russell alternated between telling funny and dangerous stories that day.
After moving from West Monroe, Louisiana, to Oakland, California, a teacher asked Russell to join the choir. “You look at the first black man who was expelled from a white choir because he could not sing,” said Russell.
He released one of his social giggles.
Then he spoke of his father, who finally told his son late in his life that he loved him and was proud of him.
After learning that he would receive the Medal of Freedom, Russell traveled from Seattle to Oakland and visited his father’s grave.
“You know, I have to agree with you. You did it well.
Another Russell gossip.
Those are the days you will never forget.