The Passing of a Hero

It’s not often a person is in the same room as one of her or his heroes.  That was my experience in May 2003, when Mr. Bill Russell, NBA All-Star and Civil Rights advocate, was awarded an honorary degree at Franklin College’s Commencement.  

I learned more about Mr. Russell last week when word of his death led to news stories heralding his achievements.  I hadn’t grown up as a Boston Celtics fan, but anyone who appreciated basketball knew of the Celtics.  The team was dominant, and while Mr. Russell was surrounded by other great players, he was both Boston’s center on the court and the “center” of the team.  I don’t think I’ve ever watched a better defensive player.  

From the accolades and remembrances that appeared last week, I learned that Mr. Russell routinely faced racial hatred from fans.  Unfortunately, that is still the experience of many Black NBA players.  But Mr. Russell experienced racism not just on the road, but also in Boston—his “home team.”  Yet, I doubt if there’s any footage of him yelling back at fans or even acknowledging the slurs.  

Mr. Russell wasn’t awarded an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, from Franklin College because of his basketball career alone.  He wasn’t the first professional Black basketball player, but he was for me and many others the basketball equivalent of Jackie Robinson, with whom he was a close friend.  Both men understood the importance of their moment in sports history and in American history.  Both pushed back against prejudice; both opened doors for others to follow. 

If there is one word that I associate with Mr. Russell, it is the word “dignity.”  On the court, in interviews after games, in supporting Martin Luther King, Jr., and in standing with Muhammad Ali when he was unjustly stripped of his titles, Mr. Russell not only carried himself with dignity—always—but also treated others with dignity.  

When Mr. Russell rose to speak to Franklin College’s graduates in 2003, his notecards fell to the floor.  I remember the moment because Mr. Russell was experiencing in those seconds every public speaker’s nightmare.  Mr. Russell calmly picked the cards up, seemed to realize that there wasn’t time to put them back into order, and proceeded to do his best with the moment.   

Some tall men and women, even athletes, slump, particularly as they age.  In all the photos of Mr. Russell, I’ve never seen him slump.  Even when President Obama placed the Medal of Freedom around his neck when Mr. Russell was in his late seventies, President Obama had to reach up to place the medal around Mr. Russell’s neck.  There was no slump.  And when Mr. Russell dropped his notecards at Franklin College’s graduation, he rose up to his full height and spoke from his heart.  Perhaps appropriately, he spoke from beneath a basketball hoop in Franklin College’s Spurlock Center.

As is evident from this column, I can’t refer to Mr. Russell as “Bill” or even “Bill Russell.”  When I had the privilege of shaking his hand after the Commencement program in 2003, I congratulated him as Mr. Russell, although I probably should have referred to him as Dr. Russell. 

Greatness is hard to define precisely, but as is true of other virtues, we know greatness when we’re in its presence.  Greatness was in Franklin College’s Spurlock Center that day in 2003, and few of us who were there will ever forget the tall, dignified man who stood at the podium.