I caught Bill Russell’s glare as I descended the stairs in Boston’s TD Garden before a Celtics game in 2007. His 6-foot-10 frame—I’m six-four—was still imposing. Russell was in his early 70s then; I was a reporter in my late twenties covering sports business in Boston, which meant covering the Boston Celtics, the team Russell led in the ‘50s and ‘60s to a still-unrivaled streak of 11 championships in 13 years.
He gave a slight nod, nothing else, and it was one of the few times, even covering professional sports and athletes, that I felt truly small.
The man was a giant, not just owed to his superior height and arrow-straight posture that made him feel taller than he was even as a senior citizen. His understated gestures could trigger anyone’s humility, a testament to the fact that his lifetime of leadership and changemaking made him the biggest person in any space he occupied, even a 20,000-seat arena on a night the Celtics hosted the Lakers.
Russell died at age 88 over the weekend leaving a legacy larger than most of us.
Russell wasn’t just a player who changed his entire sport with his dominance. He was a vocal civil rights activist in the Boston of the 1950s and 60s. In case you missed it, LeBron James—himself an athlete outspoken about social justice—said last month that he hates playing in Boston because fans there are “racist as fuck”.
James was talking about the Boston of 2022, a city that’s majority nonwhite and has its second consecutive nonwhite, woman mayor along with a newly-hired Black police commissioner. The Boston of Russell’s heyday was a city of segregated schools whose racism was immortalized in a photo of a Black attorney being jabbed in the gut with a flagpole—Old Glory still attached—by a white guy who was big mad about the forced busing of Black kids to previously all white schools. Russell’s was the Boston where racists broke into your family’s home, smashed a trophy case and took a shit on your bed while you traveled to away games.
That Boston—that America—and the racists in them couldn’t shrink Russell. Instead he grew bigger. Big enough to write articles in national outlets about the racism he faced. Big enough to March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with MLK. Big enough to publicly support Black folks in his adopted city who protested for their kids’ right to attend desegregated schools. He was big enough to get on a plane to Cleveland and, along with other Black athletes, challenge the convictions of the biggest boxer of his day, Muhammad Ali, who refused induction into the Army during the Vietnam war.
Russell never shrank. His last few years in Boston, he was not only a player but the team’s head coach at the same time, the first Black athlete in a major American sports league to do so. He went on to coach other NBA teams and work in the front office. He never stopped standing up, until it came to Colin Kaepernick, whose protests of police brutality Russell supported by kneeling in kneeling wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Russell was so big, even Shaquille O’Neal shrank in his presence, according to Mark W. Wright, the co-founder of Wright Creative, a a branded content and video production firm based in Charlotte, N.C. A former staffer at ESPN the Magazine (I was also a senior editor there), managed to get Shaq and Russell, his idol, together for an interview. It was clear as soon as Russell showed up that he dwarfed his seven-foot-one, 300-plus pound protégé.
“Shaq’s countenance immediately changed. He knew he was hardly the biggest man in the room anymore, and he was OK with that,” Wright said. “He looked as enamored with Russell as I was. He greeted Russell, as you’d expect the son of an Army sergeant would, with a firm handshake.
“After that, Shaq barely spoke - allowing for Mr. Russell to carry and lead the conversation. I barely got my questions out, and Shaq was ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’ for the entire 45-minute session, occasionally asking Mr. Russell for his advice on most things not related to basketball.”
We should all hope to be lucky enough to have someone so big make us feel so small.