Boston If the Boston Celtics win the current NBA Finals series, they will be the sole record champions. The great sportsman and even greater personality Bill Russell, who has been forgotten not least because of racism, has led her to eleven of her 17 championships to date.
Only a handful of basketball players are also known to non-fans, and the most successful by all standards is almost guaranteed not to be among them.
Michael Jordan, the first global superstar ever, led his Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles in the 1990s. Kobe Bryant, his legitimate successor in many ways, helped the LA Lakers to five championships in the ’00s. Much less well known is a man named William Felton Russell (now 88 years old) who gave his team as many championships as the two most famous stars put together.
Bill Russell laid the foundation for the Boston Celtics to be crowned champions in the current finals series. The 2.08 meter tall Schalks was the backbone, heart and brain of one of the most selfless teams of all time. In his thirteen seasons, he led Boston to eight straight titles and 11 overall – no team player in history has a similarly impressive record. What’s more, in the last three of those seasons, Russell mastered the thankless dual role of player-coach, which also made him the first African-American coach in a professional sport.
Why is the man so unknown who, in his interpretation of the center position, was practically a goalkeeper and center forward in person and who came to the professional league as an Olympic champion and two-time college champion?
The fact that Russell celebrated his successes in the 1950s and 1960s, ie in the distant past, is only a small part of the answer. Even among his contemporaries – journalists and fans alike – Russell was hated at worst and grudgingly respected at best. The curse of doing good deeds hit him in three ways: Russell played exemplary for the team, was involved off the pitch as a civil rights activist – and refused to see himself as a star or to pay the proverbial price of fame. That had consequences.
On the field, he focused so consistently on team success that he actively reduced his own visible contribution to it. Russell deliberately limited himself to the defensive game, which he revolutionized with timing, athleticism and systematic study of the geometry of the game. He focused on winning balls after misses (“rebounds”) – and generously left the scoring to his teammates, who he kept happy. But precisely this key to long-term team success disqualifies him for generations of simpler minds, who equate playing quality with the individual point average per game, which at Russell was only half of Michael Jordan’s impressive 30.
When it comes to social commitment, the results of the direct duel between the contenders for the title “Greatest Basketball Player of All Time” are decidedly different. While Michael Jordan to this day has scrupulously refrained from making any statement that would discourage anyone from buying his highly profitable Air Jordan sneakers, Russell has made statements again and again in much more difficult circumstances. In 1963 he took part in the legendary march of civil rights activists to Washington and experienced Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. And despite concrete death threats, Russell, who was born in Louisiana, also returned to the southern states several times – in the tradition of his grandfather, who once held the racist Ku Klux Klan at bay with a shotgun.
The fact that Russell was also and especially attacked in a racist manner in his sporting hometown of Boston was also due to his rather idiosyncratic mixture of pride and humility. “I’m not a basketball player!” he emphasized repeatedly. “Playing basketball is just what I do, but not what I am.” That the well-read Russell made such statements was felt by many to be an affront at the time, which the first African-American athletes of the time like Russell certainly didn’t see as slaves, but they did understood as a kind of circus horse.
This conflict over self-determination and heteronomy was taken to the extreme by Russell’s decision not to give autographs as a matter of principle. Fans, journalists and politicians accused him of arrogance and child hostility and conjured up the downfall of the West. On the one hand, Russell wants to set an example against the star cult – but above all, he demonstratively exercises his right as a free man and sovereign citizen.
His FBI file reportedly said, “An arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children.” To himself, it’s a matter of principle, a matter of dignity and self-respect — and a symbolic, tiny revenge for centuries of the Racism. He doesn’t smile when he’s supposed to. He doesn’t sign anything he doesn’t want to sign. He says no.
In recent years, gestures of reconciliation have multiplied, tearfully repeating ceremonies in his honor once boycotted by Russell at the stadium and basketball Hall of Fame. In 2009, the NBA named the Finals Most Valuable Player trophy after him. In 2011, US President Barack Obama presented him with the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award – specifically for his athletic performance on the field and his involvement in the civil rights movement.
When he received an honorary award for his basketball life’s work in 2017, he snapped at the other living legends present: “I would still crush you!” – and then he does what he is doing more and more often. The once so brusque man, filled with righteous anger, bursts out into his unexpectedly childish, immensely high, outrageously contagious laugh.
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