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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reflected on decades of friendship with ‘personal hero’ Bill Russell

Bill Russell appeared at the the 2018 NBA All-Star weekend, flanked by Grant Hill, left, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.Kevork Djansezian

Like so many across the sports world (and beyond), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shared his thoughts following the death of Celtics legend Bill Russell.

Abdul-Jabbar initially tweeted about Russell, calling him “my friend, my mentor, my role model.” In addition, he promised to write a more substantive article on his relationship with Russell.

For his Substack newsletter on Monday, Abdul-Jabbar opened up about the history between the two Hall of Fame centers in a piece titled, “The Bill Russell I Knew for 60 Years.”

“There is a whole lot more truth and love and respect in my 60-year relationship with Bill Russell that I want to share so the world can know him,” wrote Abdul-Jabbar, “in not just as one of the greatest basketball players to ever live, but as a man who taught me how to be bigger—as a player and as a man.”

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The first meeting between the two occurred in 1961, when Abdul-Jabbar was 14. The Celtics practiced at Power Memorial Academy, Abdul-Jabbar’s New York City high school, prior to a game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

“As I wandered into the gym, I saw, sitting casually on the bleacher bench reading The New York Times, Bill Russell,” Abdul-Jabbar recalled. “The Secretary of Defense himself. My personal hero.”

The meeting was initially an awkward one, as Russell “snorted” that he was “not getting up just to meet some kid.”

But at the behest of Celtics coach Red Auerbach, Russell introduced himself. In retrospect, Abdul-Jabbar said the meeting “fueled” him to work even harder.

“They say you should never meet your heroes,” he wrote. “That it’s mostly disappointing, disillusioning, or disheartening. But that wasn’t my experience. I was thrilled. He spoke to me. And I thought I saw in his eyes a recognition of someone, like him, who had a passion for the game that burned deep and hot and bright.”

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Over the next few years, Abdul-Jabbar studied Russell on the basketball court “the way Oppenheimer studied Einstein.”

“I learned how to dominate in the paint by applying defensive pressure,” he remembered.

“Watching him, I realized that Bill seemed to know what each player was going to do before they did,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “He anticipated their move like a chess master, then sprang into the air to block them before they knew what was happening. He didn’t play one-size-fits-all defense, he customized his defense to fit each player.”

But just as Russell’s legacy is inextricable from his work as an activist, so too was his effect on Abdul-Jabbar.

Specifically, Abdul-Jabbar pointed to their mutual presence at the famous 1967 meeting of mostly Black athletes with Muhammad Ali (which became known as the Cleveland Summit).

Bill Russell, seated at left next to Muhammad Ali, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, seated far right next to Jim Brown, attended the Cleveland Summit. Bettmann Archive

“The Bill Russell of the Cleveland Summit was who I wanted to be when I grew up,” he said. “In fact, the Bill Russell of the Cleveland Summit made me grow up right then and there. As I had emulated him on the court, I chose to also emulate him off the court.”

During that time, the two developed a friendship. Much of it, according to Abdul-Jabbar, was based around trying to elicit Russell’s signature laugh.

“At each meeting, I made it my mission to try to make him laugh,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “He had a high-pitched giggle of a laugh — something between a warbling goose and a braying donkey —a nd nothing brightened a room like his laugh. When Bill laughed, you couldn’t not laugh along.”

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One of the more personal anecdotes that Abdul-Jabbar shared was of working up the courage to finally ask Russell for an autograph while the two were filming a commercial together (along with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson) in 2014.

It was something Abdul-Jabbar said he’d wanted of Russell “since meeting him 53 years ago.”

Russell, who historically was never a fan of giving autographs, “gave me a long look,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote.

But eventually, the 11-time NBA champion signed the jersey he’d been handed, and Abdul-Jabbar thanked him.

“Sure, kid,” Russell said to the then 67-year-old Abdul-Jabbar.

“He had continued to call me kid since our first meeting when I was fourteen,” Abdul-Jabbar explained. “I think that was his good-natured way of reminding me that he was there first and I would always be following in his giant steps.”

And even at their final meeting — a barbecue in 2021 — Russell greeted his old friend with the familiar, “Hello, kid.”

For Abdul-Jabbar, it was another excuse to return to a familiar routine.

“I smiled back and tried to think of how I would make him laugh.”