The NBA world lost a true pioneer on Sunday as legendary Boston Celtics center Bill Russell passed away at the age of 88. Even though Russell haunted the Los Angeles Lakers throughout his career, being a major reason Elgin Baylor and Jerry West never won a championship together, his impact on the game far exceeds the Lakers-Celtics rivalry.
Russell was one of the first African-American stars in the NBA and was a major force during the Civil Rights era, fighting for the rights of black people in this country and handling everything with grace and class that very few could.
In fact, in reflecting on the legend, West put Russell in the same class as Major League Baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson for what he meant to the game both on and off the court, via Bill Plaschke of the L.A. Times:
“In every generation people make a difference not only with their play, but also with their persona,” said West. “Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson were in that same class.”
West would continue on in his praise of Russell, saying that it almost felt like he was a teammate rather than an adversary, and lauding him for the way he handled the things he went through:
“My friendship with him was such that it’s almost like I played with him instead of against him,” said West. “He went through so much and handled it all so quietly. I admired him so much as a human being.”
On the court, Russell remains the biggest adversary the Lakers have ever faced off against as he won seven of his 11 NBA Championships at the Lakers’ expense. But what he stood for and the fights he fought at that time mean much more than basketball.
Russell was outspoken at a time when it was dangerous for a black man to do so. His house in Boston was vandalized, police followed him through his neighborhood and the FBI even opened up a file on him. But through all of that, he became the winningest player in American team sports history and the first black head coach in American team sports. The NBA would eventually name the NBA Finals MVP Award after him, and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
Russell’s impact truly stretches well beyond the sports world and his legacy will be felt forever.
Lakers legends react to passing of Bill Russell
Many throughout the NBA world paid their respects to the great Bill Russell following the news of his passing on Sunday.
The likes of Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol all took to social media to thank him for everything he did as both a player and a human being.
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