Celtics legend Sam Jones’s son, Aubre, opened Facebook on Sunday morning and saw that Bill Russell’s daughter, Karen, had posted a beautiful picture of herself as a toddler, beaming and laughing as she sat in her father’s lap.
Aubre Jones smiled as he looked at the photo and thought back to those early years, when most of the Celtics and their families became one big family. He posted a comment below the picture: “That is a great cover photo of a young lady with the greatest winner in NBA history!”
Karen Russell responded that Sam Jones and the others on those Celtics teams that won eight consecutive NBA titles from 1959–66 had played a key role in Russell’s ascension.
A few hours after this nostalgic interaction, Aubre Jones learned that Bill Russell had died Sunday at the age of 88.
“He was an amazing person with a lot of courage,” Aubre Jones said by phone. “And he could laugh, and you wouldn’t even be in the same room, but you could just tell it was him.”
Sam Jones, who died in December, was teammates with Russell for 10 of his 11 NBA championships. Aubre remembers visiting Russell’s home often as a child, and his fondest memory came during the 1967 World Series, when the Red Sox were hosting the Cardinals. After Game 1, Jones and his family went to Russell’s house and met St. Louis stars such as Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, who had been invited there for dinner.
For Russell, these subtle acts of hospitality were common, but rarely made public. He housed rookie guard K.C. Jones for a short time in 1958, and then extended the same offer to guard Don Chaney a decade later.
K.C. Jones’s daughter, Bryna, said her family became so close to Russell that she just called him Uncle Bill. Russell and Sam and K.C. Jones maintained their friendships long after their careers ended. Aubre Jones said his father spoke to Russell on the phone about once a week for many years.
Once, Russell showed up to visit K.C. Jones at a nursing home. His children were surprised by the visit, but Russell brushed it off.
“Uncle Bill just said, ‘I’d walk 1,000 miles to see him,’ ” Bryna Jones recalled Sunday.
In 1958, Russell was in his third NBA season and forward Wayne Embry was a rookie with the Cincinnati Royals. Embry was quite familiar with Russell after seeing him lead the University of San Francisco to consecutive NCAA titles before winning an NBA crown with Boston. At the start of that year, the Celtics and Royals played a multi-game exhibition tour throughout Ohio and New England.
“I was kind of in awe of the great Bill Russell,” Embry said by phone Sunday. “I had to make adjustments to my game, too. I learned a hook shot in college that was hard to block, but it wasn’t for Bill. He got them all.”
Embry was one of two Black players on the Royals and he said Russell, who became a civil rights pioneer, took him under his wing and talked to him about what life would be like in the various NBA cities he’d visit. He recommended certain areas and restaurants where it would feel safe, and he added ones to avoid. But in Boston, there was no issue.
“The pregame meal was always at Bill’s house,” Embry said. “Then in Cincinnati he’d come to ours. And we’d go out and compete like hell on the court after.”
Embry retired in 1966 to work at a soft drink bottling company. That summer he was playing in a golf tournament with Russell, who had just become the Celtics’ coach while remaining active as a player, and Russell convinced him to join him in Boston. They won a championship one season later.
Embry said that he and Russell remained in contact over the years. Their conversations were simple.
“How are you doing? Be safe. Be well,” Embry recalled.
As Russell got older, Embry said, sometimes he’d just call and speak to his wife, Jeannine, while Russell sat and listened. Jeannine called Embry on Saturday and told him that Russell was not doing well. Then she sent a text message on Sunday to tell him that he had passed on.
“Bill’s competitiveness on the court and his genuine passion for what he stood for off the court was an inspiration,” Embry said.
Former Celtics great Cedric Maxwell, now an analyst on the team’s radio broadcasts, said Russell flashed a wide smile whenever the two crossed paths. Maxwell would wave, and Russell would stick up his middle finger before cackling with joy.
“I was like, ‘Damn, I’m either really close to this guy, or he doesn’t even like me,’ ” Maxwell recalled with a chuckle. “He was just such a cool dude. He was real. And he was an American hero. He was a philanthropist, an activist. It went beyond basketball.”
Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens first met Russell when a statue of him was unveiled outside City Hall in 2013, Stevens’s first season as the head coach. Russell then sat courtside as Boston coughed up a big lead and lost its home opener against the Bucks.
Stevens joked that he wasn’t sure how long his coaching career would last after that blip, but he was honored just to see Russell there.
“He cared so much about winning and cared so much about the right stuff away from the court,” Stevens said. “In so many ways, he is the standard. When you talk about the Celtics and the banners and the history and the tradition, the first name that comes to mind is Bill Russell. That’s pretty powerful when you think about it. He transcended generations and will forever.”
Stevens said the Celtics have already started discussing how they’ll honor Russell at the start of next season, and he said that whatever they do will probably not even be enough. Co-owner Wyc Grousbeck echoed that sentiment Sunday.
“Bill epitomizes everything that’s great about the Celtics, and everything that can be great about humanity, about life,” Grousbeck said. “If you have any questions about what you should do with your life in this world, just take a look at Bill Russell.”