It was a day to celebrate Elgin Baylor, who the Los Angeles Lakers had just honored with a statue outside of their home arena. On that warm April 2018 evening, one of Baylor’s greatest antagonists emerged and prominently seated himself in the crowd.
Bill Russell wouldn’t blend in anywhere, especially in his green polo shirt at a Lakers event.
Jerry West, Baylor’s teammate all those years ago, was standing behind a lectern and couldn’t help but notice Russell’s presence.
“All casualties for that gentleman over here,” West said. “I forgot your damn name. What is it? Invoice? Last name – Bill Russell, is that it?”
The crowd loved the part and West continued.
“There are more incredible stories in a losing dressing room – and especially when it’s the same damn team and that smiling donkey over here.”
A few feet away, Russell was actually smiling broadly. He laughed during West’s performance. Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships, seven of them with NBA Finals wins over the Lakers — and all in 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 assembled guests that day didn’t mistake his playful thrusts for real animus by telling them he loved Russell.
It was a bit of a role reversal for Russell, who was usually the one delivering Zinger in his later years. Deeply respected for what he did on and off the court, his jabs were always met with laughter, and in moments when he was genuine, his sincerity was met with deep gratitude by the players Russell changed the NBA for answered
Russell’s family announced on Sunday that he had 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 at the Olympics and 11 in the NBA — nodded to his personal accolades and highlighted his lifelong fight against racial discrimination. It also included a request that people keep Russell in their prayers. “Perhaps you will relive one or two of the golden moments he bestowed on us, or remember his signature laugh as he was delighted to explain the true story behind those moments,” the statement said.
The basketball world has celebrated him by remembering his entire life, including moments of humor.
“Where did you find all these big people?” Russell asked on stage at an NBA awards ceremony in 2017. The league had gathered other major 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 to each of them. He then cupped his hand around his mouth and used colorful language in a stage whisper to say he was going to beat them all.
A year later he sat in the audience at the same awards ceremony.
“Mr. Bill Russell,” Hall of Famer forward Charles Barkley said onstage, “thank you.”
The camera panned to Russell, who smiled and gave Barkley his middle finger.
Later tonight, Russell released a statement on Twitter: “Sorry everyone, I forgot it was live TV and I can’t help but see Charles, it’s just pure instinct.”
His jokes often oozed well-deserved bravado, and they played well because the basketball players of future generations regarded him with awe.
They marveled at his talent on the pitch, how he became the most feared defender of his day – a dominant force before blocks became an official statistic. But they respected even more the way he became, in an era of segregation, the NBA’s first black superstar, born in the Jim Crow South, fighting racism in society and in the NBA Russell once a strike game in Kentucky He and his black teammates were denied service at a restaurant. In the 1950s, he spoke about the NBA’s unofficial quota system that prevented more black players from being in the league.
There are some Hall of Famers who aren’t shy about sharing their opinion that recent basketball eras have been far worse than their own.
As Russell got older, however, he often showed that he returned the love and respect he received from some of the game’s younger stars.
At the 2008 All-Star Game, a camera caught him sharing an affectionate moment with Lakers guard Kobe Bryant.
“I watch a lot of your games,” Russell told Bryant.
“Thanks,” Bryant said with a smile on his face.
Russell told Bryant that when he watches games, he tries to understand what specific players’ agendas are in those games and then see how well they were able to execute their plan.
“Me too,” Bryant said eagerly. “But I did because I read your book.”
The two laughed 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 Russell had become a mentor to him, he simply picked up the phone to call him and ask for Russell’s advice.
On January 26, 2020, Bryant died in a helicopter crash with his daughter Gianna and seven other people. The Lakers and Celtics played each other a few weeks after the crash in Los Angeles. Russell attended the game wearing a Lakers jersey — Bryant’s jersey — and a hat with Bryant’s initials embroidered in purple within a yellow heart.
Their relationship transcended the bitter rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics, as did Russell’s relationship with West.
He also had a special bond with Kevin Garnett, who led the Celtics to their first NBA Finals since 1987 in 2008. Garnett began his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves but was traded to the Celtics in 2007.
“You are my favorite player to watch; They never disappoint me,” Russell told Garnett in an arena hallway during that season. ESPN aired the footage in 2008 ahead of an interview between Russell and Garnett.
“You joke so much,” Garnett said. “I don’t know if that’s real or not.”
“No, it’s real,” Russell replied as Garnett’s laugh turned serious. “And you never let me down. And you finally put on the right uniform.”
The clip then showed an interview between Russell and Garnett. They sat facing each other in chairs next to a backdrop of Celtics 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 that you’re playing the way you’re supposed to be playing, I’m going to share one of mine with you.” , Will you come.”
Later in the conversation, Russell Garnett gave a message similar to the one he gave Bryant.
“I couldn’t be prouder of you than I am of my own children,” Russell said.
Russell and Garnett looked at each other meaningfully. It was hard to tell behind his square-cut glasses, but Russell’s eyes seemed to water as he spoke to Garnett.
He finished with a joke about how Garnett’s number 5 was close to number 6, his own number, and then laughed, his voice booming, raspy and bubbly at the same time – a laugh few who had heard ever forgotten could.