Those legends who converged on Boston Friday afternoon were staggering. NBA legends. Musical legends. Political dignitaries. An NFL icon. An Emmy award-winning actress all made their way to the Northeast on an overcast day to honor the greatest Celtic, Bill Russell.
And ironically, a ceremony that was moved to the 33d floor of the State Room because of weather concerns offered a breathtaking backdrop of a progressively clearing day in Boston. By the time Russell stepped to the podium to speak after being honored with a statue at City Hall, the sun broke through, and there was a rainbow.
This was no coincidence. The long overdue honor humbled Russell but didn’t surprise his peers. They spoke eloquently of his impact, which spread much further than the basketball floor.
Lakers legend Elgin Baylor said he has known Russell for 57 years, when he and two of his teammates from Seattle University drove to Corvallis, Ore., to watch Russell play for the University of San Francisco in the Far West Regionals of the NCAA Tournament.
Baylor said he and his teammates talked their way into Russell’s hotel and found his room, knocking on his door to request tickets to the game. Russell obliged, and Baylor and his buddies watched Russell take the Dons to the regional championship.
“Lo and behold we go to the game and the next thing I know I’m in the NBA and playing against the Celtics,” Baylor said. “The strange thing about Russell and me, we’re still great friends, but when we used to play, before the game he would always invite me over his house to eat. When he came to LA I would invite him over to eat. And before the game starts, you go out there and shake hands. Russell would totally ignore you. He wouldn’t shake hands, anything. After the game was over, he’d come by the dressing room outside and say, ‘Come on, man, let’s get something to eat.’ He would do that home and away, it didn’t matter.
“We’ve always had a great relationship over the years. He’s done so much for basketball and to change things — the first black coach and the first black coach to win a championship, changing the culture, he’s been a pioneer.”
Former NBA guard Kenny Smith was Russell’s first draft pick with the Sacramento Kings in 1987 and sat next to his new coach on team flights and bus rides during their one season together.
“Every time I’m at a basketball camp, a lecture, or anything, I always have a Bill Russell story,” Smith said. “The NBA and the people know that I always have a story of how I connected with him that year. Being drafted by him and sitting next to him every day, it was endless accounts of history. I was overwhelmed and I really didn’t know what to say to him. I didn’t know whether to call him, Coach Russell, Bill, Mr. Russell, and then my assistant coach [in Sacramento] was Willis Reed, so I was in heaven. It was an unbelievable experience my rookie year.
“Honestly, he taught me what teamwork was about regardless of what was happening, winning and losing. I sat next to him four hours a day, and if I went to sleep he would nudge me and say, ‘Sleep nights, young fella, listen to what I’m saying.’ Some of those stories [he told Friday] I already heard. It was a great feeling to know I was a part of that.”
Actress Alfre Woodard, who made an eloquent speech in Russell’s honor, said she got to know the man through his daughter, Karen, while attending Boston University in the 1970s.
“I was always amazed at how relaxed and at home he seemed to be in his body and in his spirit,” Woodard said. “How much that whole idea of being standoffish and people who didn’t want to accept or understand I don’t give autographs but if you want to sit down and talk, let’s do it. Just watching him through the years and how graceful he’s been and how strong, and finding out from [Karen] about his background and his father. I just wanted to be able to stand [for him] today.”
While the honor was overdue and the 79-year-old Russell appeared rather ambivalent about the statue itself — he joked it represented a tombstone and target practice for pigeons — his contributions to Boston and impact on the city are beyond description.
His relationship with the city hasn’t always been optimal, but the statue and this honor represents payback for some of the difficult times. Russell’s 27-minute speech was filled with stories, very few of them about basketball, most of them about his father.
He gave his audience an education, still in his advanced years giving an assist.
READY TO ROLL
Raptors hope for fast start
The Toronto Raptors haven’t been to the playoffs since 2008, and new general manager Masai Ujiri has some decisions to make depending on whether this current group fulfills potential. He could easily put players such as Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, and Kyle Lowry on the market and then attempt to “rebuild” in hopes of getting Canadian prospect Andrew Wiggins, who has made it no secret he would like to play in his home country.
Or if the Raptors make a playoff push, Ujiri could keep the roster intact and build with his inherited cornerstones. It’s seemingly up to the players. One of those players is DeRozan, the senior member of the club, who has All-Star potential but has been challenged by coach Dwane Casey to improve his overall game.
“The one thing we have come into this year with is high expectations,” DeRozan said. “We understand how hard we worked and how good we could be. We can’t wait until midseason. We can’t wait for a third of the season to play well. We have to do it from the start. Once we do that and be more consistent, we’ll be fine.”
The Raptors started last season 4-19 but then went 30-29, offering a glimmer of hope after they acquired Gay from the Memphis Grizzlies.
“This last month and a half, two months, we’ve definitely been together and pushing each other like crazy,” DeRozan said. “So we understand that the first couple of months are definitely critical.”
DeRozan signed a long-term extension before last season, making a commitment to the organization that many before him have not, including Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, Vince Carter, and Chris Bosh. DeRozan and Gay have promised to recruit free agents to play north of the US border, attempting to popularize one of the league’s sleepy locales.
“The best way where we could help with that situation is to win,” DeRozan said. “Everybody knows it’s a great city but the best selling point is to win. There won’t be further excuses about anything else.”
DeRozan is a freakish athlete who can get to the rim at will, but Casey challenged him to improve his 3-point shooting, as well as his distributing and defense.
“It’s time for me to put everything together to be a complete player,” DeRozan said. “I showed spurts of being great and I need to be a complete player. I don’t need to have any limitations.”
Casey said the team matured and learned from last season’s horrid start.
“We worked on what to do when adversity hits,” he said. “And everybody starts doubting you and starts all the Twitter and media gets on us, how are we going to handle that? That’s the most important thing, I think, for a young team.
“We didn’t handle it well at the beginning of last year. It kind of snowballed on us. We finally got the ship righted. How do we handle tough times? My shot’s not falling. Somebody is kicking my butt on the offensive end. How do we bounce back? That’s going to be a major step.”
Casey is being evaluated by Ujiri, who did not hire him and may want to start fresh with a new staff unless the Raptors flourish.
“For me as a coach, this is our group,” Casey said. “Masai and the management people, they have to evaluate everyone. For me as a coach, these are my guys. I can’t think anything else besides getting them ready to be successful. Every team I’ve been with, you’re being evaluated by upper management and ownership and everyone else. I think it’s fair to do in every organization. I don’t think that’s different anywhere else.”
A FEW 3-POINTERS
Thomas: Heat could repeat
Isiah Thomas knows all about the road the Miami Heat are trying to navigate, having won consecutive titles in 1989 and 1990 with the Pistons before they fell short in 1991. Thomas said he has talked with some members of the Heat about their quest, and how to approach the difficult task of a third consecutive title.
“I think what LeBron [James] and the Miami Heat have done is gone back and researched,” Thomas said. “And then you have [longtime assistant coach] Ron Rothstein sitting on the bench and then Pat Riley in the front office. They have some familiarity with going after it again, and health-wise they will try to do all of the right things to keep their team healthy. But whether or not they can do that, that’s a test.
“Can you stay healthy enough to compete in June? I think signing [former No. 1 overall pick Greg] Oden was big if he can play and perform at half his level that he was in college. He’s a huge find. They’ve added some young guns that can really help them get through the season offensively and defensively.”
Thomas said the approach to winning a third title is different. The first is the most difficult but there are challenges to repeating.
“As a champion, you’re either fighting to get it or fighting to keep it,” Thomas said. “You’re always fighting. When they talk about the hunted or hunter, you’re all in the same field of play. When you get to the top and you’ve got all the marbles, you’re not interested in giving any of your marbles up. There’s really only two or three teams who have the hunger to climb that mountain.”
Thomas said he views the Chicago Bulls as the primary competition to the Heat.
“When I watch them play, I see a team that’s committed, I see a team that has values, I see a team that has vision, I see a team that has structure — they have a defensive mind-set,” he said of the Bulls. “They’re very similar to our ’89-90 team, their style of play, their defensive philosophy, their efficiency on offense with a point guard that can now shoot the three, take it to the basket, can control the tempo of the game. If I had to pick one team that I wouldn’t want to play against, it would be the Chicago Bulls.
“When you look at [Derrick] Rose, [Joakim] Noah, [Carlos] Boozer, and [coach Tom] Thibodeau, those four guys, their mentality permeates through that team. I see Miami and Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals, and whichever team is the healthiest will probably win.”
Thomas added that new Celtics coach Brad Stevens will fare well but the team’s talent will eventually determine whether he will succeed.
“If you don’t have the players, you’re not going to win,” Thomas said. “Every coach in the NBA can coach, let’s get that straight. But does every coach have the players? Because everyone kind of knows the same thing. There’s no hidden knowledge anywhere. If you have the players, you can win. That’s the good thing about the NBA and that’s the bad thing about the NBA.
“People say Coach Stevens didn’t have players at Butler. A couple of people he had at Butler are in the NBA, so he had some players, too. You don’t get to this level without players. The one thing we all know about the Celtics and Danny [Ainge], they’re going to go get the players. They will find the players.”
The Sacramento Kings made a statement Thursday by not exercising the contract option of Jimmer Fredette, which will make the former Brigham Young star an unrestricted free agent next summer. Fredette was the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft but has been relegated to a bench role and essentially passed in the pecking order by 5-foot-9-inch Isaiah Thomas, who is in his third season. The Kings’ previous owners, the Maloof brothers, drafted Fredette because they thought he would be a fan draw, but he became little more than a scoring reserve who couldn’t defend other shooting guards . . . As for extensions, Memphis’s Quincy Pondexter agreed to a four-year deal, a testament to how much the Grizzlies appreciate his defensive-minded style. Pondexter was traded to Memphis from New Orleans in the Greivis Vasquez deal two years ago . . . The Celtics allowed MarShon Brooks and Jordan Crawford to become free agents at the end of this season by not picking up the options on their deals. Their situations are similar. The Celtics don’t want to commit any unnecessary salary to players they are uncertain about, and neither has proven he can be a potential franchise cornerstone . . . The Wizards wasted no time in waiving Shannon Brown, Malcolm Lee, and Kendall Marshall from the trade with the Suns, putting three intriguing players on the free agent market. Marshall is a pass-first point guard whose style never fit with the Suns, but he could serve as a solid backup for a building team. The Celtics would likely be interested in Marshall if his salary didn’t push them above the luxury tax and make them a repeat offender, something ownership desperately wants to avoid during this rebuilding phase. Lee has never had a chance to establish his NBA career after leaving UCLA two years early, and is likely headed for the NBADL or overseas . . . Another interesting player on the market is former Orlando Magic second-round pick Romero Osby, who looked solid in summer league but was waived before the season began. Osby is a physical small forward likely to sign with an NBADL team and wait for his NBA chance. NBADL Maine invited 11 players to training camp, including the four released by the Celtics during camp . . . Former NBA coach Sam Mitchell, looking to join a club as an assistant coach, has agreed to become an analyst for Raptors television broadcasts.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.