With a spotlight shining on the retired No. 6 hanging from the TD Garden rafters, the Celtics on Tuesday night had a ceremony honoring legendary center Bill Russell, who died July 31 at the age of 88.
About 30 minutes before tipoff of the season opener against the 76ers, with Russell’s widow, Jeannine, and daughter, Karen, in attendance, a video montage celebrating Russell’s impact on and off the court was shown on the video board. Then Celtics forward Jaylen Brown took a microphone, paused with his head down, and gave a brief speech.
“Bill Russell was a great man, but what did that mean?” Brown said. “What defined his greatness? Who was he as a mentor, a father, a member of his community, and most certainly his 11 championships in Boston, both playing and coaching? But, undoubtedly, Bill Russell was a great man for what and who he stood for. During the peak in racial tension in our society he represented the type of nobility and honor that transcended sports.
“The amount of respect he received from his people will live on in eternity, and I’m grateful to be able to shake his hand. I started off by saying Bill Russell was a great man. In closing, Bill Russell was the greatest of men.”
Boston’s poet laureate, Porsha Olayiwola, then gave an impassioned oration as a tribute to Russell before Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc performed a song honoring him.
“He means more than basketball,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said before the game. “I think his legacy on the court and there’s a legacy off the court for what he fought for, and for how he represented the Celtics. And I think that’s the thing to focus on the most, is everybody in our organization is trying to impact the Celtics and impact the community the way that he did.”
Pregame introductions following the ceremony were muted. The Celtics typically dim the lights and turn the moment into a spectacle. In this case, longtime public-address announcer Eddie Palladino quickly read through Boston’s starters without the usual pomp and circumstance, with the organization clearly not wanting to take away from Russell’s moment.
“He meant a lot before I arrived here,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers, who coached the Celtics from 2004-13, said before the game. “What he stood for, what he went through, the first Black coach, and being a winner. I still don’t think he gets enough credit. He did so many things, I still don’t think we talk enough about his winning. Everywhere he went, he won.”
Later in the night, the Celtics were expected to present the Bill Russell Mentoring Award to David Shapiro and his mentee, Keontai Robinson. Shapiro is a longtime friend of Russell’s who also serves as CEO of MENTOR, a nonprofit that aims to drive equity and close the mentoring gap to ensure that all young people have access to quality mentoring relationships. Russell was a founding board member of the organization.
The Celtics wore their City Edition uniforms honoring Russell. The script on the jerseys was inspired by a sign on Slade’s Bar and Grill, the Boston restaurant that Russell owned in the 1960s. Also, 11 gold diamond icons were placed on the sides of the uniform, a nod to Russell’s 11 NBA championships. The belt buckle on the shorts displayed Russell’s No. 6 surrounded by 11 gold diamonds.