PHOENIX – They marched him to a podium with the NBA Finals MVP trophy that’ll bear his name now, and the words had barely begun tumbling out of Bill Russell’s mouth when his hands began to tremble, his eyes welled, his voice cracked. Russell had always controlled the room with that guttural laugh and peerless presence, but the game’s greatest champion had seldom appeared so mortal, so vulnerable.
He just turned 75 years old, just lost the love of his life, Marilyn, to cancer, and now the league’s linking of his legacy to that annual award moved Russell to such bittersweet sorrow.
“I just lost my special person,” Russell said, the words stopping short. Somehow, this touched him to his core. No one saw it coming in the room, and no one could breathe. He just fought back those tears, fought back the ache of loss that comes with time’s passage.
Russell is the NBA’s forever champion, the center on the Boston Celtics’ forever teams. Eleven titles in 13 seasons belong to him, and yet the NBA never gave an MVP award for the series until his final year, when he was player-coach and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Jerry West won it on the losing end.
All these years later, there were Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Tim Duncan inside the U.S. Airways Center on a frivolous All-Star Saturday night. The NBA was never a big party when Russell played, never a clown show. This nonsense was never his thing, just winning and winning and winning and winning.
All these years later, Bill Russell was still the biggest basketball star in the building. He towers over the sport, its most regal and enduring champion. There isn’t a player alive who could’ve taken over an interview room with the gravity of his emotion, his stature. In such public sorrow, such a humbled state, he never looked bigger.
Maybe the NBA doesn’t get out of the 1950s and 1960s without the romance of the Boston Celtics’ dynasty. Maybe Dwight Howard wouldn’t have been wearing Superman’s cape, and LeBron those shades, and, maybe, 215 nations around the world wouldn’t be watching the All-Star Game on Sunday night.
“I accept this for my team,” Russell said. “And my team included our coach, Red Auerbach…” Russell has done everything. He’s set the standard for the responsibilities, the duties of a franchise star. There was no max-out contracts for Russell, just a max-out burden. People still underestimate that when Auerbach retired, he made Russell a player-coach and Boston won another title. Just imagine that – a player-coach winning an NBA title. When Wilt Chamberlain was chasing 100 points in a night, Russell was running out of fingers for his championships rings.
And he did. No one ever catches him now. No one ever wins eight in a row, and no one ever wins 11. That’s the safest record in sport. Whatever today’s players have on him – money and endorsements and global fame – no one has winning on the Celtics captain, and never will. He took a long look at that MVP trophy and marveled. “This is one of my proudest moments in basketball because I determined early in my career the only important statistic in basketball is the final score,” Russell said.
His old point guard, Bob Cousy, was on the telephone later Saturday, from his winter home in Florida and heard how the NBA had honored Russell in Phoenix. “Did they really?” Cousy said, when told the Finals MVP award now has his old teammate’s name. “Maybe Michael Jordan was the best all-around player, but Russ has the preeminent accomplishment in team sports in the world,” Cousy said. “When people think about winning, they think about Bill Russell.”
As the Celtics returned to glory a season ago, Russell’s connection to Kevin Garnett became part of the consciousness. Russell had found a kindred spirit on the Celtics again, the best defensive 7-footer in the sport. Garnett had a reverence for history, for Russell’s legacy, and honored him with word and deed. To see them marching the corridors of the Boston Garden that June night, when the Celtics had beaten the Lakers in Game 6, beaten L.A. again after all those years, was purely poetic. Two eras, two champions, marching arm and arm into forever.
When Russell could’ve been dismissive of people trying to compare his game to that of the long, wiry Garnett, he never gave it the, “Hey, what’s he ever won?” No, Russell told them he believed there were two or three championship rings awaiting the Celtics, and he had one to spare for KG should that never happen. When Boston was on the way to that 17th banner, Russell said, “I told Kevin and the guys, especially Paul [Pierce], that they were playing like Celtics.”
Mostly, Russell sees a time and a place in Boston where an African-American star can be fully embraced, fully embedded in the city. When Doc Rivers was hired as coach of the Celtics, no one asked him in his news conference what they once did Russell: Essentially, does a black man have the intellect to coach?
Some reporter asked Russell that one day in 1968. Somehow, he bit his lip and delivered a reasoned response.
Always, Russell has had the ability to control his environment. He had an impenetrable will, a capacity to impose his resolve. When Russell remembered those tumultuous times on Saturday night, he told a story about his first house in suburban Boston and how someone kept turning over his trash barrels when he’d leave town. He asked the local police to patrol his house a little more regularly, and they told him, “It’s probably just raccoons.”
So Russell said he told them, “OK, while I’m here, I would like to get a gun permit.”
And then he laughed that throaty laugh and declared, “The raccoons heard about that, never turned the trash cans over again. I never had to buy a gun. The point is, I handled all kinds of situations with a positive attitude, and as my father said, always being a man. I had to be a man in my father’s eyes…”
The NBA gave Russell one of those Finals MVP trophies to hold on his way out of All-Star weekend and he knew where he wanted to take it. His wife is gone now. Red, too. Maybe that was so much of the reason that the tears started to come here, that his voice cracked, that his heart seemed so touched they still remember him and hold him in such high regard.
“What I am going to do next week is visit my father’s grave,” Russell said, “and I’m going to share that with him.”
Bill Russell wiped the tears out of his eyes Saturday night, and started on his way into the arena where everyone was waiting for him. Shaq and Duncan, Howard and James. The biggest basketball stars in the world had come to the desert, and yet the old man with the gray beard and gap-toothed grin and cackling roar still lorded over them all.