The Bill Russell I Knew for 60 Years

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar / The Atlantic
The Bill Russell I Knew for 60 Years Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1967 (photo: Getty)

I first met the legendary basketball player when I was 14, and he showed me how to be a better player—and a better man.

When I learned that my friend Bill Russell had died, I tweeted this response: “Bill Russell was the quintessential Big Man—not because of his height but because of the size of his heart. In basketball he showed us how to play with grace and passion. In life he showed us how to live with compassion and joy. He was my friend, my mentor, my role model.”

That’s as much truth as I could fit into a tweet. But 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, 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.

There will be many biographical articles extolling Bill’s many achievements as a player and as an activist. The records, the stats, the awards, etc. This is not that kind of article. This is simply about Bill and me and two long lives that intertwined for six decades.

My First Meeting With Bill Russell Went South Fast

I first met Bill Russell in 1961, when I was a 14-year-old freshman at Power Memorial High School. I had just arrived at the school gym for team practice, only to find the Boston Celtics practicing instead. I was surprised to see a professional team in our gym, especially the NBA champions for the past three seasons in a row. As I found out later, because our gym was only 12 blocks from Madison Square Garden and near to several hotels, it was a convenient place for teams to practice.

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

I also saw my coach, Jack Donohue, chatting with the Celtics coach, Red Auerbach. Being naturally shy and unnaturally polite, I decided to head downstairs to the locker room and wait patiently until they were done. Maybe I could find a copy of the Times to read too.

“Lew, c’mere,” Coach Donohue called to me.

I gulped. Me?

I shuffled over to Coach Donohue, who introduced me to Coach Auerbach. Coach Auerbach gestured at Bill Russell. “Hey, Bill, c’mere. I want you to meet this kid.”

Bill Russell dipped down his newspaper and looked me over with a frown. Then he snorted. “I’m not getting up just to meet some kid.”

I shrank to about six inches tall. I just wanted to run straight home.

Auerbach chuckled. “Don’t let him get to you, kid. Sometimes he can be a real sourpuss.” He grabbed my wrist and walked me over to Russell.

“Bill, be nice. This is the kid who just might be the next you.”

Bill looked at me again, this time taking a little longer. I was already seven feet—two inches taller than him.

I stuck out my hand. “How do you do, Mr. Russell. Pleasure to meet you.”

He didn’t smile, but his demeanor had softened, just a little. He shook my hand. “Yeah, yeah, kid.”

That’s how I met my childhood hero.

They say you should never meet your heroes. 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.

Or maybe that’s what I wanted to see.

Either way, it fueled me to strive harder to be more like him.

How Bill Russell Inspired Me as a Player

After that first meeting, every time I ran into him, he was more and more open and forthcoming. At each meeting, I made it my mission to try to make him laugh. He had a high-pitched giggle of a laugh—something between a warbling goose and a braying donkey—and nothing brightened a room like it. When Bill laughed, you couldn’t not laugh along.

It would be a while before we met again, but I continued to study Bill Russell the way Oppenheimer studied Einstein. I even had a 1956 photo of Bill soaring high into the air during an NCAA high jump while attending the University of San Francisco. The image of Bill with his hands splayed out in front of him as if he were flying made me think that, with hard work, I could also reach those heights. What that must feel like, I wondered, determined to find out. In the photo, Bill has only one shoe on, the other foot covered in a loose sock. To me, that showed his commitment and focus—nothing could shake his will to win. I realized then how much work I had to do to compete with athletes like him.

There was something else about that photo that affected me even more than Bill’s amazing performance. If you do a search of the image, you’ll find that most versions are cropped to frame Bill flying up over the bar. Yet, if you see the complete photo, you’ll see about three dozen white people watching him, most of them frowning, glaring, or just staring. But standing beside the post is one young Black kid with a smile on his face. A kid who suddenly saw the possibilities for achievement, despite a crowd of mostly white faces who maybe saw the future of sports in America—and didn’t like what they saw.

I was that smiling kid, at least in my mind. And that photo inspired me to spend much of my high-school career emulating Bill’s playing technique.

I attended his games whenever the Celtics played the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, and I would watch them for four to five years when they practiced at my school gym. I learned how to dominate in the paint by applying defensive pressure. If you can deny the opponent any rebounds, it’s easy to have a fast-break game. If you can effectively block their shots, you force them to adjust their game into an offense they’re not as familiar with. Watching him, I realized that Bill seemed to know what each player was going to do before they did. 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.

Those were the Teachings of Bill Russell, whether or not he knew it. And I learned his teachings well. To better understand those lessons, watch this:

How Bill Russell Inspired Me as an Activist

I always knew I wanted to be active in civil rights, but I didn’t always know how I would do that. I had attended some anti-war and civil-rights protests rallies while at UCLA, but I knew that wasn’t enough. In 1967, when I was 20 years old, the football legend turned Hollywood actor Jim Brown asked me to join what became known as the Cleveland Summit. We were a group of mostly Black athletes—including Bill Russell, Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter, and John Wooten—tasked with determining the sincerity of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted by the U.S. Army based on his religious views as a Muslim. Several of the group were ex-military and did not look sympathetically on Ali’s stance.

Bill was the most famous member of the summit, other than Jim Brown and Ali, but he never tried to leverage that to influence the rest of us. His approach was logical and dispassionate, encouraging us to listen with open minds to what Ali had to say. That reasonable approach proved to be much more effective than trying to sway us. He knew that Ali could speak eloquently and passionately for himself, and that if we were open, we would see the truth in what he said. That was a huge lesson in humility and leadership that guided me for many years after.

The Bill Russell of the Cleveland Summit was who I wanted to be when I grew up. 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. I read interviews with him, and I read his 1966 autobiography, Go Up for Glory, about his experiences growing up in segregated America and the obstacles he faced as a Black man, despite his fame and accomplishments. What especially struck home was his refusal to become the stereotypical Angry Black Man that many tried to force him to be. Instead, he chose to focus on finding a path to change and social justice through specific actions and programs.

Years later, when some in the press tried to characterize me as the Angry Black Man, I tried to follow Bill’s rational example to remain calm and join the fight by championing specific solutions rather than just raging and shaking my fist. Although sometimes the frustrations call for a good fist-shaking. Then, as Bill taught me, it’s back to doing the hard work that actually brings change.

Me and Bill as Old Men

I was 67 years old when I finally got up the courage to ask Bill for something I’d wanted since meeting him 53 years earlier: his autograph. Bill, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and I were shooting a commercial for AT&T. We all had so much fun that day joking around with one another that I thought it was the perfect time to spring into action.

We were taking a break between filming. I saw Bill sitting comfortably in a chair, sipping coffee. I stalked him the way he’d taught me to stalk players right before leaping up to block their shot. I got closer, a big, disarming smile on my face. He looked up, unsuspecting.

“Hey, Bill,” I said. “Wonder if you’d do me a favor.”

He just looked at me. “Hmmm.”

I whipped out the jersey from behind my back. His home jersey from the Celtics. Number 6. I held up a black Sharpie. “Mind autographing this for me?”

He gave me a long look, took the jersey and Sharpie, signed it, handed it back.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Sure, kid,” he said. He had continued to call me kid since our first meeting, when I was 14. I think that was his good-natured way of reminding me that he had been there first and I would always be following in his giant steps.

And that was just fine with me.

The last time I saw Bill was last summer at a family barbecue at Lakers headquarters. He saw me walking toward him, smiled, and said, “Hello, kid.”

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

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