On Thursday afternoon, the NBA announced that Bill Russell’s No. 6 would be retired leaguewide, making him the first player to receive the honor.
But earlier in the day, NBA commissioner Adam Silver revealed the tribute to the small group of mourners at Russell’s private funeral in Seattle. Celtics co-owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca were in attendance, and Grousbeck said in a phone interview that when Silver made the announcement, there was applause.
“It was fantastic,” Grousbeck said.
Russell, the Hall of Fame center who won 11 NBA titles with the Celtics, died July 31 at the age of 88. In the nearly two weeks since then, there have been remembrances and honors focused both on Russell’s incomparable playing career and the impact he had as a civil rights pioneer.
But the celebration of his life Thursday morning in Seattle was quiet and private, just as Russell tended to prefer.
Grousbeck estimated there were fewer than 100 people in attendance, including NBA legends such as Charles Barkley, Julius Erving, and Clyde Drexler. Grousbeck said a letter from former President Barack Obama was read during the service.
Grousbeck said a line in Barkley’s speech was particularly powerful; he stated the NBA family has lost its boss.
“No one’s ever heard speeches like these about a human being,” Grousbeck said. “It was a fitting tribute to one of the all-time greats. It was all really moving.”
Amid all of the recent tributes, the decision to retire Russell’s number across the NBA is perhaps the most significant.
Grousbeck said Silver referenced Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson, whose No. 42 was retired across Major League Baseball in 1997. Hockey icon Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99 was retired by the NHL in 2000.
Russell will become the first NBA player to be recognized in this fashion. Players currently wearing No. 6 can continue to do so if they wish.
“I think the honor is the perfect thing to do, because he’s the DNA and the bedrock of the Celtics and of the modern NBA,” Grousbeck said. “We’re all trying to lead in social justice and equality, and we’re tracing it back to Bill and honoring him and thanking him for giving his life to that.”
The NBA also announced that each player will wear a patch on the right shoulder honoring Russell, and each court will display a clover-shaped logo with No. 6.
Grousbeck reiterated that plans are underway for an extensive celebration of Russell’s life to be held at TD Garden near the start of the NBA season. Also, the team is seeking more permanent memorials.
“There’s warm feelings today,” Grousbeck said. “It’s a good day, even though this is a great loss.”