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Emerson: Bill Russell leaves a lasting legacy bigger than basketball

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I’m obviously way too young to even think about watching Bill Russell play professional basketball. However there’s no debating the legacy that Russell, who peacefully passed away this past Sunday at the age of 88, leaves behind.

The accolades speak for themselves. Everyone knows about the dominance of those Celtics team’s that Russell anchored. In his 13 seasons with the Celtics, Boston appeared in the NBA finals 12 times and winning the championship 11 of those 12 seasons. He was, and still is to this day one of the most dominating players to ever step on the hardwood. He accumulated 22,620 rebounds during his 13 seasons averaging out to over 22 per game. While his 15.3 points per game might not seem like much, scoring was not even close to being as high-octane as it is today. Back in 2009 the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award was named in Russell’s honor.

Bill Russell was more than just a dominating player on the basketball court. In 2011 President Barack Obama awarded Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil honor. In 2017 the NBA awarded him the lifetime achievement award.

Of course the outpouring of love and support came from not just the basketball world, but the entire country when news of his death broke on Sunday. Here’s what some of the NBA’s best and others had to say about the 7’1 legend courtesty of ESPN.

Charlotte Hornets Chairman Michael Jordan

“Bill Russell was a pioneer -- as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach and as an activist,” Jordan, now the chairman of the Charlotte Hornets, said in a statement. “He paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him, including me. The world has lost a legend. My condolences to his family and may he rest in peace.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver

“I cherished my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Silver said. “I often called him basketball’s Babe Ruth for how he transcended time. Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever.”

President Joe Biden

“Bill Russell is one of the greatest athletes in our history -- an all-time champion of champions, and a good man and great American who did everything he could to deliver the promise of America for all Americans.”

Former Boston Globe Celtics beat writer Bob Ryan

“If Bill Russell came back today with the same equipment and the same brainpower, the same person exactly as he was when he landed in the NBA in 1956, he’d be the best rebounder in the league,” Bob Ryan, a former Celtics beat writer for The Boston Globe, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2019. “As an athlete, he was so far ahead of his time.”

I also asked some of our area basketball coaches about Russell’s passing and the impact, legacy and overall player that he was. Here’s what they had to say.

Crawfordsville boy’s basketball coach David Pierce

“When the old timers (the generation before) talk about basketball in the 60s and 70s, they always talk about Bill Russell.  He averaged 24.6 rpg in the playoffs and won 11 Championships. It’s kind of like today when we tell kids, “I wish you could have watched Jordan play, he was completely different than Lebron. “Some athletes and people just have different motors when it comes to competition. “Old timers” called Bill Russell a tenacious competitor, today kids would call him a beast. His hustle and effort is what made him legendary.”

Southmont boys basketball coach Jake Turner

“Bill Russell was the ultimate winner. He won on every level and his success was due not only to his abilities, but maybe more so because of his selflessness. He could have scored more, but he preferred to pass or rebound and outlet the ball for fast breaks. He was not flashy. Rather than spiking a block out of bounds, he would tip it to himself or a teammate so they could get fast breaks. And he did all of this while enduring discrimination off the floor. He was a great player, a great person, and someone who all young players should research so they know about his greatness.”

Crawfordsville girls basketball coach Tyler Smith

“Bill Russell often talked about consistency and the joy of the game- two things I try to pass on to my players.  The world lost a great person, but his contributions to this life and the game will live on.”

Southmont girls basketball coach Dan Burkman

“Russell was a winner.  He exemplified  everything a winner does.  Work hard, being committed and facing adversary while doing it.”

The definition of the word icon doesn’t do enough justice to what Russell meant to this world. Even at the ladder stages of his life, I can always remember seeing him at games on TV and talking with this generation of NBA stars. His love for the game was just another amazing quality about him that made him special.

The sports world lost a pioneer and more importantly a great human being.

Rest in Peace Mr. Russell, you will never be forgotten.

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