Bill Russell’s Legacy and His Laughter Touched Millions
It was a day to celebrate Elgin Baylor, whom the Los Angeles Lakers had just honored with a statue outside their arena. On that hot evening in April 2018, one of Baylor’s biggest antagonists showed up and took a prominent seat in the crowd.
Bill Russell would never blend in anywhere, and certainly not in his green polo shirt at a Lakers event.
Jerry West, Baylor’s teammate all those years ago, stood behind a desk and couldn’t help but notice Russell’s presence.
“All this gentleman’s losses here,” West said. “I forgot your fucking name. What’s that? Invoice? Last name – Bill Russell, right?”
The crowd loved the track and West continued.
“There are more incredible stories in a losing dressing room – and especially when it’s the same fucking team and this smiling asshole here.”
A few yards away, Russell was indeed smiling, broadly. He laughed throughout West’s performance. Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships, including seven with NBA Finals victories over the Lakers — and all colored Celtics green.
West played on six of those Lakers teams that lost to Russell’s Celtics, and the two became friends later in life. He made sure the guests gathered that day didn’t mistake his playful jabs for actual animosity, telling them he loved Russell.
It was a bit of a role reversal for Russell, who in his later years was usually the one delivering zingers. Deeply respected for what he has done on and off the pitch, his jabs have always prompted laughter, and in the moments he was sincere, his earnestness has elicited deep gratitude from the players for whom Russell has changed. the NBA.
On Sunday, Russell’s family announced that he died peacefully with his wife by his side. He was 88 years old. The statement mentioned Russell’s championships — two in high school, two in college, one in the Olympics and 11 in the NBA — nodded to his personal accolades and highlighted his lifelong fight against racial discrimination. It also included a plea for people to keep Russell in their prayers. “Perhaps you will relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he delighted in explaining the real story behind how these moments have unfolded,” the statement read.
The basketball world celebrated him by remembering his entire life, including the humorous moments.
“Where did they get all those big ones?” asked Russell, onstage at an NBA awards ceremony in 2017. The league had brought together other great centers – Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, David Robinson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — to present Russell with a lifetime achievement award.
He looked carefully at the group and pointed at each of them. Then he put his hand around his mouth and, in a stage whisper, used colorful language to say he would beat them all.
A year later, he was sitting in the audience at the same awards show.
“Mr. Bill Russell,” Hall of Fame forward Charles Barkley said, “thank you.”
The camera pans to Russell who smiles and points his middle finger at Barkley.
Later that night, Russell posted an explanation on Twitter“Sorry everyone, I forgot it was live TV and I can’t help it every time I see Charles, it’s just pure instinct.”
His jokes were often dripping with well-deserved bravado, and they played well due to the awe with which future generations of basketball players viewed him.
They marveled at his skill on the pitch, how he became the most feared defender of his day – a dominant force before blocks became an official statistic. But more than that, they respected how he became the NBA’s first black superstar in an era of segregation, who was born in the Jim Crow South and fought racism in society and in the NBA, Russell has once led a one-game strike in Kentucky after he and his black teammates were denied service at a restaurant. In the 1950s, he denounced the NBA’s unofficial quota system that kept more black players out of the league.
Some Hall of Fame players are quick to share their opinion that recent eras in basketball were much worse than theirs.
However, as Russell got older, he often showed that he reciprocated the love and respect he had garnered from some of the game’s younger stars.
During the All-Star Game in 2008, a camera caught him sharing a tender moment with Lakers guard Kobe Bryant.
“I watch a lot of your games,” Russell told Bryant.
“Thank you,” Bryant said, a smile spreading across his face.
Russell told Bryant that when he watches games, he tries to figure out what certain players’ plans are in those games and then see how well they were able to carry out their plan.
“Me too,” Bryant said impatiently. “But I got it because I read your book.”
The two shared a laugh, and then Russell told Bryant he was as proud of him as if he were his own son. Bryant thanked him again and they hugged.
Years later, Bryant said that Russell had become a mentor to him, that he simply picked up the phone to call and ask Russell for advice.
On January 26, 2020, Bryant died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter Gianna and seven others. The Lakers and Celtics faced off in Los Angeles a few weeks after the crash. Russell attended the game wearing a Lakers jersey – Bryant’s jersey – and a hat with Bryant’s initials stitched in purple inside a yellow heart.
Their relationship transcended the bitter rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics, as did Russell’s relationship with West.
He also shared a special bond with Kevin Garnett, who in 2008 took the Celtics to their first NBA Finals since 1987. Garnett started his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves but was traded to the Celtics in 2007.
“You are my favorite player to watch; you never disappoint me,” Russell told Garnett in an arena hallway during this season. ESPN aired the footage in 2008 ahead of an interview between Russell and Garnett.
“You make so many jokes,” Garnett said. “I don’t know if it’s real or not.”
“No, it’s real,” Russell replied, as Garnett’s laughter turned serious. “And you have never disappointed me. And you finally put on the right uniform.
The clip then showed an interview between Russell and Garnett. They were seated on chairs facing each other, next to a display of Celtic memorabilia.
“I think you’re going to win at least two or three championships here,” Russell said. “And if you don’t but I see you playing like you should be playing, I’ll share one of mine with you.” He added: “If you play the way you play and dedicate yourself to doing it, they will come.”
Later in the conversation, Russell gave Garnett a message similar to the one he gave Bryant.
“I couldn’t be more proud of you than my own children,” Russell said.
Russell and Garnett looked at each other meaningfully. It was hard to tell exactly from behind his square glasses, but Russell’s eyes seemed to water up as he spoke to Garnett.
He ended with a joke about how close Garnett’s No. 5 was to No. 6, his own number, and then laughed, his voice booming, hoarse and bubbly at the same time – a laugh that few who hear it had heard could ever forget.