Bill Russell’s legacy and laughter touched millions

It was the day they honored Elgin Baylor, whom the Los Angeles Lakers had just honored with a statue outside their home arena. On that warm April evening in 2018, one of Baylor’s greatest adversaries appeared and took a prominent place in the crowd.

Bill Russell never leaked anywhere, and certainly not in his green polo at a Lakers event.

Jerry West, Baylor’s teammate many years ago, stood at the podium and couldn’t help but notice Russell’s presence.

“All the losses to this gentleman are here,” West said. “I forgot your damn name. What’s this? Bill? Last name is Bill Russell, right?

The audience loved it and West continued.

“More incredible stories happen in the locker room of the losers, especially when it’s the same damn team and this smiling jerk.”

A few feet away, Russell was actually smiling broadly. He laughed throughout West’s performance. Russell has led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships, seven of them with NBA Finals wins over the Lakers – and all of them are colored green by the Celtics.

West played for six of the Lakers teams that lost to Russell’s Celtics, and the two later became friends. He made sure that the guests who had gathered that day did not confuse his playful attacks with real hostility, telling them that he loved Russell.

It was sort of a role reversal for Russell, who in later years was usually the one to deliver the wit. Deeply respected for what he did on and off the court, his jabs were always met with laughter, and when he was sincere, his seriousness was met with deep gratitude from the players for whom Russell changed the NBA.

On Sunday, Russell’s family announced that he had passed away peacefully next to his wife. He was 88 years old. The statement mentioned Russell’s championship titles – two in high school, two in college, one in the Olympics and 11 in the NBA – alluding to his personal accolades and highlighting his lifelong struggle against racial discrimination. It also included an agreement that people pray for Russell. “Perhaps you will relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he happily explained the real story of how those moments unfolded,” the statement said.

The basketball world made him famous, remembering his whole life, including moments of humor.

“Where did they find all these tall people?” Russell asked onstage at the 2017 NBA Awards. The league brought together other great centers – Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Morning, Dikembe Mutombo, David Robinson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – to present Russell with a lifetime achievement award.

He carefully looked at the group and pointed to each of them. Then he put his hand over his mouth and said in a theatrical whisper that he would beat them all.

A year later, he was sitting in the audience of the same awards show.

“Mr. Bill Russell,” Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said onstage, “thank you.”

The camera moved to Russell, who smiled and gave Barkley the middle finger.

Later that night Russell posted an explanation on twitter: “Sorry, I forgot it was live and I can’t help myself when I see Charles, it’s just instinct.”

His jokes often oozed well-deserved bravado, and they succeeded because of the reverence with which basketball players of future generations looked at him.

They admired his talent on the court, how he became the most feared defender of his era, the dominant force before blocks were official statistics. But even more they respected how he became the first black NBA superstar in the segregation era who was born in the Jim Crow South and fought racism in society, and in the NBA Russell once led a strike in a game in Kentucky after him and his black teammates was denied service in the restaurant. In the 1950s, he spoke of the NBA’s unofficial quota system, which kept more black players out of the league.

There are some Hall of Famers who are not shy about sharing their opinion that recent basketball eras have been much worse than their own.

However, as Russell aged, he often showed himself to reciprocate the love and respect he received from some of the game’s younger stars.

At the 2008 All-Star Game the camera caught him Shares a tender moment with Lakers defenseman Kobe Bryant.

“I watch a lot of your games,” Russell told Bryant.

“Thank you,” Bryant said with a smile on his face.

Russell told Bryant that when he watches games, he tries to understand what certain players’ plans are in those games and then see how well they were able to execute on their plan.

“Me too,” Bryant said impatiently. “But I figured it out because I read your book.”

They laughed and then Russell told Bryant that he was as proud of him as if he were his own son. Bryant thanked him again and they embraced.

Years later, Bryant said that Russell became a mentor to him, that he simply picked up the phone to call Russell for advice.

Jan. On February 26, 2020, Bryant died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter Gianna and seven other people. The Lakers and Celtics played each other in Los Angeles weeks after the accident. Russell came to the game wearing a Lakers jersey—Bryant’s jersey—and a cap with Bryant’s initials embroidered in purple inside a yellow heart.

Their relationship extended beyond the bitter Lakers-Celtics rivalry, as did Russell’s relationship with West.

He also had a special connection with Kevin Garnett, who in 2008 led the Celtics to their first NBA Finals since 1987. Garnett began his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but was traded to the Celtics in 2007.

“You are my favorite player that I look up to; you never disappoint me,” Russell told Garnett in the arena hallway that season. ESPN showed footage in 2008 before an interview between Russell and Garnett.

“You joke so much,” Garnett said. “I don’t know if this is true or not.”

“No, it’s real,” Russell replied as Garnett’s laughter turned serious. And you never disappoint me. And you finally put on the right uniform.

The clip then featured an interview with Russell and Garnett. They sat in chairs across from each other, with Celtics memorabilia in the background.

“I think you will win at least two or three championships here,” Russell said. “And if you don’t, but I see that you play the way you should play, I will share one of mine with you.” He added, “If you play the way you play and dedicate yourself to it, they will come.”

Later in the conversation, Russell gave Garnett a message similar to the one he gave Bryant.

“I’m no more proud of you than my children,” Russell said.

Russell and Garnet looked at each other meaningfully. Behind his square glasses it was hard to tell, but Russell’s eyes seemed to water as he spoke to Garnett.

He ended with a joke about being Garnett’s No. 1. 5 was close to no. 6, his own number, and then laughed, his voice booming, husky and playful at the same time – a laugh that few who heard him could ever forget.