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Boston had a complicated relationship with Bill Russell, its greatest winner in both basketball and life

Arthur Smith of Charlestown was among those who went to the Bill Russell statue on City Hall Plaza to pay respect to the giant after his death Sunday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

How do you begin to compliment the person who is beyond compliments? How do you begin to laud the person beyond adulation?

Never could enough be said about Bill Russell, a man we mere mortals considered indispensable. A man we thought would live forever, sharing stories with his bushy gray beard and cackling laugh. A man who impacted generations because he appreciated those who came after him. He admired their games, presented them with awards, appreciated their physical prowess.

But never once did Russell believe he couldn’t shut any of them down. Never once did Russell believe any of those big men, who may have earned hundreds of millions more than him, would ever be able to score on him, or outwork him, or screen him from a rebound. Or, most importantly, stop him from winning.


Russell was the ultimate winner. There are those who scored more points, pulled down more rebounds, or even blocked more shots, but Russell’s records were on the scoreboard.

And a man who accomplished so much success on the floor had the guile, poise, and patience to be a leader off the floor despite the racism, despite the outright hatred he endured in some cities, even at home. He persevered, broke barriers, and personified Black greatness.

We almost overlook that Russell was the first Black professional head coach of any major North American sport. We almost forget he won two championships as a player-coach. We almost forget that he made the smooth transition into television. We should never forget that he personified class and grace, and perseverance in a time when Black achievement was notoriously difficult.

He shared a difficult relationship with this city. He withstood so much criticism and adversity outside the Boston organization. He never quite felt welcome here until his later years. He didn’t give America a break for being slow to accept and embrace diversity and civil rights.


Boston tried to repay its debt to Russell. The Celtics retired his number despite him refusing to attend the ceremony. The city gave him a statue. He was treated regally each time he stepped foot in the Garden, including last November. One would hope Russell completely forgave the city.

Russell bonded with players young enough to be his great grandsons. He appeared at the first Celtics-Lakers game after the tragic January 2020 passing of Kobe Bryant wearing a Kobe jersey and cap. He chatted with Kevin Garnett. He gave the middle finger to Charles Barkley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the NBA Awards. He eulogized old buddy/adversary Wilt Chamberlain at his 1999 funeral.

Bill Russell and Kevin Garnett celebrate the 2008 NBA title.Getty Images file

He remained a visible, influential figure 50 years after his final game. He is the No. 1 athlete to put on a Boston uniform. He is the greatest Celtic of all time. Any athlete that wore No. 6, from Julius Erving to LeBron James to Ryan Howard, was always associated with Russell. He owns No. 6.

Russell should be remembered as more than a Celtic, more than an 11-time champion, more than a civil rights pioneer. As someone who eradicated barriers, erased stereotypes and removed perceptions with his brilliance, his class, his strength, and his stubbornness. He refused to be viewed as anything but a man. He did not spend a fraction of compassion on those who were intimidated by him. Those who looked at his 6-foot, 10-inch frame, his brown complexion and goatee, and were daunted.


That was their problem. He was not here to make them comfortable, to show his tender side, to display what was an engaging and affable personality to those who did not deserve such treatment.

He was very comfortable in his own skin. He told you exactly what he thought. Time and reflection warmed some of those bitter feelings, some of those chilly past relationships, such as with Bob Cousy and others he felt weren’t as supportive during his difficult times in Boston. Some of those old grudges dissipated, and even old Russ softened a little as he aged.

The world has changed so much since Russell’s last game in 1969. The NBA is filled with Black coaches. Diversity and inclusion are the benchmarks of the league. It wasn’t always that way. There were some owners frightened by the possibility the league could become mostly Black. They were scared of the possibility that young Black men from the inner city would someday dominate their league.

Russell was not the intermediary. He was not the articulate man who made those power brokers feel comfortable. That was beneath him. His primary goal was to prove through his actions that he was better than they would have expected or envisioned.

He was a man in his own class. There has never been a match. He fused athletics and social activism. He fused his generation and this generation. He was beloved not for always being a nice guy, not for signing autographs or being congenial, but for being the ultimate competitor, the ultimate winner, the ultimate teammate.


In a generation consumed with stats, captivated by numbers, Russell remains the transcendent example that winning is all that matters. It’s the bottom line.

And there was never a bigger winner than Bill Russell, in basketball and in life.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.