Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the best basketball players on earth and is also highly respected for his impact off the court as a civil rights activist. But before him, there was Bill Russell.
Russell, a giant in sports whose 11 NBA titles are unmatched, marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and supported Muhammad Ali when he refused to serve in the Vietnam War.
And as a prominent black athlete for the Boston Celtics in the 1960s, Russell left a profound impact on society, something recognized by President Barrack Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
When Russell died Sunday at the age of 88, Abdul-Jabbar, whose NBA career began the season after Russell retired, released a statement honoring his “idol” and “mentor,” calling him “the great quintessential man, not because of his height, but because of the size of his heart.
And on Monday, Abdul-Jabbar shared memories of their relationship in an essay titled “The Bill Russell I Knew for 60 Years,” which can be read on his subpile. here.
Below are some of the best moments from the Abdul-Jabbar tribute:
“I don’t wake up just to find a child”
The first time Abdul-Jabbar met Russell he was just 14 years old. The Celtics were touring and practicing on their high school court because it was close to Madison Square Garden in New York, where Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) grew up. .
When his coach, Jack Donahue, and legendary Celtics bench manager Red Auerbach arranged for Abdul-Jabbar to meet his idol, Russell sat on the bench, uninterested in paying attention to a young Abdul-Jabbar.
“Bill Russell dipped his newspaper and scowled at me. He then snorted: ‘I won’t get up just to meet a child.’
I shrunk to about six inches tall. I just wanted to run straight home.
Auerbach chuckled. ‘Don’t let it get to you, boy. Sometimes he can be a real bittersweet. He grabbed my wrist and walked me over to Russell.
“Bill, be nice. This is the kid who could be the next you.
Bill looked at me again, this time taking a little longer. I was already 7′, two inches taller than him.
I held out my hand. How are you, Mr Russell? Nice to meet you.’
He didn’t smile, but his demeanor had softened, just a little. She shook my hand. ‘Yes, yes, boy.’
That’s how I met my childhood hero.”
Bill inspired Kareem to be cool, on and off the court.
While the great Wilt Chamberlain was winning scoring titles, Russell was busy winning championships.
Russell only averaged 15 points per game in his career. – a much lower number than most would associate with all-time great status. But Russell was the better team player, putting victory above personal achievement and using his 6-foot-10 frame to rebound and defend. Something that Abdul-Jabbar, a great man, studied “as Oppenheimer studied Einstein.”
“I went to their games every time the Celtics played the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and watched them for four or five years when they practiced in my high school gym. I learned how to dominate in the paint by applying defensive pressure. If you can deny it, opponent any rebound it’s easy to have a fast break game If you can block their shots effectively you force them to adjust their game on an offense they’re not that familiar with Watching him, I noticed that Bill seemed to know what he was going for each time. player. do before they did. He anticipated their move like a chess master, then jumped into the air to block them before they knew what was happening. He didn’t play a one-size-fits-all defense, he customized his defense to suit each player .
Those were the Teachings of Bill Russell, whether he knew it or not. And I learned well the teachings from him.”
Years later, and by this point Russell had grown fond of him, Abdul-Jabbar was invited to the “Cleveland Summit,” also known as the Muhammad Ali Summitwhere several black athletes “were tasked with determining the sincerity of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the US Army based on his religious views as a Muslim,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote, noting that several members were not in favor of Ali’s position.
There was also Russell, who implored the athletes to listen and be open to what Ali had to say, something that left a lasting mark on Abdul-Jabbar.
“The Bill Russell of the Cleveland Summit was who I wanted to be when I grew up. In fact, the Bill Russell of the Cleveland Summit raised me right then and there. Having emulated him on the court, I chose to emulate him off the court as well. I read interviews with him and read his 1966 autobiography Go Up for Glory about his experiences growing up in American segregation and the obstacles he faced as a black man in America, despite his fame and accomplishments. attention was his refusal to become the stereotypical Angry Black Man that many tried to force him to be, instead choosing to focus on finding a path to change and social justice through specific actions and programs.
Years later, when some in the press tried to characterize me as the Angry Black Man, I tried to follow Bill’s rational example of staying calm and joining the fight by advocating specific solutions instead of just getting angry and shaking my fist. Although, sometimes, frustrations deserve a good fist shake. Then, as Bill taught me, it’s getting back to doing the hard work that really brings about change.”
Can I get your autograph?
Despite building a strong relationship over decades, it took Abdul-Jabbar 53 years of knowing Russell to work up the courage to ask for an autograph.
It came during a commercial shoot with other NBA greats, where “everyone had a great time.” So when they took a break, Abdul-Jabbar knew he had a good chance.
“‘Hey, Bill,’ I said. ‘I wonder if you’d do me a favor.‘
He just looked at me. ‘Hmm.‘
I pulled the shirt from behind my back. Your Celtics home jersey. Number 6. I picked up a black Sharpie. Would you mind autographing this for me?‘
He took a long look at me, took the shirt and Sharpie, signed it, and handed it back to me.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
‘Sure, boy,’ he said. He continued to call me a boy from our first meeting when I was fourteen years old. I think that was his good-natured way of reminding me that he was there first and that I would always be following in his giant footsteps.
And that was fine with me.“