Wherever Bill Russell goes, he is a walking monument to the history of basketball, a 6-foot-10-inch gateway to so many of the stories that weave the league together.
His presence in Springfield has been permanent for almost half a century. In 1975, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the first Black player to receive the honor. However, he chose not to attend.
It was his own form of protest. He didn’t reveal until 2019, when he finally accepted his Hall of Fame ring, that the reason was because he believed there were others before him who deserved to be recognized.
On Saturday, Russell was once again inducted into the Hall of Fame. Already acknowledged for his accomplishments as a player, he was honored at MassMutual Center for his time as a head coach.
When Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach passed the baton to Russell in 1966, Russell became the first black coach in the history of US professional sports. He went on to win two championships in three years as player-coach in Boston. He had a four-year run as head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics before ending his time in the NBA with a season with the Sacramento Kings.
Russell joined Bill Sharman, John Wooden, Lenny Wilkens, and Tommy Heinsohn as the only Hall of Famers to be inducted as a player and a coach.
“This honor would never be possible without my good friend Red Auerbach,” Russell said in a video message recorded in lieu of the customary speech. “Red was a visionary. When he first asked me if I wanted to coach the Boston Celtics, I wondered, ‘Could I coach Bill Russell?’ Coaching the Celtics was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I had during my 13 years in the NBA.”
Russell attended the ceremony with his wife, Jeannine. (In a Twitter post on Friday as he arrived in New England for a weekend of enshrinement festivities, the 87-year-old Russell said he would only attend select events.) Fellow 2021 inductee Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who was enshrined in May with the Class of 2020, were sitting behind him.
As he took the stage to accept the honor, he got helping hands from other basketball greats: Charles Barkley, Julius Irving, Spencer Haywood, Alonzo Mourning, Bill Walton, and Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts.
Russell used the moment to remember David Stern and Kobe Bryant, who both died a year ago, tapping them as his presenters.
On a night when Pierce, Chris Bosh, Chris Webber, Ben Wallace, Bob Dandridge, Yolanda Griffith, and Pearl Moore were among those immortalized by the Hall along with Val Ackerman, Rick Adelman, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Howard Garfinkel, Lauren Jackson, and Toni Kukoc, Russell could look around and see generations of players for whom he helped blaze a trail.
In a video recording, former President Barack Obama offered a special message to Russell, a champion not only in basketball but civil rights.
“Bill Russell, perhaps more than anyone else, knows what it takes to win and what it takes to lead,” Obama said. “That’s always been true off the court as well. As I mentioned when I gave him the Medal of Freedom [in 2011], this is a man who marched with Dr. [Martin Luther] King and stood by Muhammad Ali. He endured insults and vandalism, but never stopped speaking up for what was right … I could not be more honored to celebrate Bill Russell for the way he played, the way he coached, the way he led and the way he lives his life. Because as tall as Bill Russell stands, his example and his legacy rise far, far higher.”
In his speech, Webber thanked Russell among other prominent athlete activists including John Carlos.
The path Russell laid could be seen in Doc Rivers, the last coach to win a title for the Celtics, who was also on hand.
Rivers said in a video tribute, “Bill Russell allowed the rest of the world to know that if you’re qualified to coach, you can coach. Without Bill Russell, I’m probably not coaching.”
Haywood, who was inducted into the Hall in 2015, echoed the sentiment.
“He is the original,” he said. “All of the coaches you see in professional sports, all of them stand on the shoulders of Bill Russell.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.