Saturday, February 19, 2011

Honoring Bill Russell

President Obama honored Bill Russell with the Presidential Medal of of Freedom a few days ago (rightfully pointing out that Boston needs to do more to honor the Celtic great) and in so doing reminded us of one of the great figures from the world of sports. Indeed Russell always transcended mere sport. Always outspoken about politics and racial issues Russell's integrity always stood out, even above his sizable frame and other-worldy basketball accomplishments.

When people think about race, sports, and Boston they immediately zero in on the woeful record of the Red Sox, the last Major League team to integrate, a team overtly hostile to black players long after Jackie Robinson integrated the Dodgers. The unwillingness of the Red Sox to integrate probably played as big a role in their long championship drought as any single factor. And yet people too often use the Red Sox as a sort of shorthand metaphor for race relations in Boston, a city fraught with racial strife and a sometimes shameful history, particularly given the city's putative liberalism.

Yet if the Red Sox serve as the ur-example of Boston's racial hypocrisy the Celtics represent the opposite strain. Name a significant landmark in the integration of professional basketball and the Celtics either set the pace or quickly fell into line, and that history emerges almost parallel with Russell's career. Russell was not the first black player in the NBA, but he was the league's first bona fide black superstar, its first true black team leader, and not only did he become the NBA's first black head coach, but he was a revolutionary in all of professional sports in breaking that ground. Russell was the first black basketball Hall of Famer and was the cornerstone of the first team to be predominantly black.

Beyond his social importance, Russell has almost been somewhat forgotten in the age-old bar debate about the greatest players of all time. That mythical title long ago went to Michael Jordan, and I always believed that we conceded that title too quickly and too easily. Jordan accumulated incredible numbers and his highlight reel was second to none. yet the point of team sports is to win, and Bill Russell was the greatest winner in the history of American professional team sports. And Russell was always the unquestioned leader and best player on those teams. Russell did not pile up gaudy individual numbers because he was too busy doing the things to make teammates better -- and if making teammates better is a major factor in assessing greatness, who made more players great than Russell? Some might argue that Russell was great because he was surrounded by so many Hall of Famers. I would argue that Russell was great because he made so many good players into Hall of Famers.

In that era Wilt Chamberlain racked up numbers. Bill Russell simply beat the pants off of Chamberlain. And that is because in the context of a team game, Russell was simply the better player. If we have a draft to create an all-time team, if I draft first, I'm taking Russell. And all evidence indicates that my team is going to win while yours looks good losing.

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