On the same day that the city of Boston unveiled a statue for Bill Russell back in 2013, Brad Stevens coached his first regular-season game at TD Garden. With Russell sitting courtside and honored during the game, the Celtics fumbled away a 22-point lead and lost to the Milwaukee Bucks.
“I’ve always felt bad about that,” Stevens lamented last year.
Playing in front of the greatest winner in all of team sports will make you feel that way. Stevens always bristled whenever any of his Celtics team sputtered while playing in front of legends. But even at the start of Boston’s rebuilding process, Stevens was mortified by his team’s meltdown.
After all, Russell was the ultimate winner. He was 21-0 in winner-take-all games, including 10-0 in NBA Game 7s. Russell won 11 NBA titles with the Celtics, two NCAA championships at the University of San Francisco, and secured a gold medal at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne.
His legacy off the court, both as a civil rights activist and as a mentor, left an even greater impact than his basketball career. But championship success defined his playing days and made him iconic.
"He is everything you want to be represented by," Stevens said. "I've said this many times, when you think about his impact, on and off the court, he's in very rarified air.
"I can't think of a better representative of our sport or the Celtics."
Russell passed away Sunday at the age of 88. The Celtics released a statement celebrating his impact.
"To be the greatest champion in your sport, to revolutionize the way the game is played, and to be a societal leader all at once seems unthinkable, but that is who Bill Russell was.
"Bill was a champion unlike any other in the history of team sports — an 11-time NBA champion, including winning eight consecutive titles, a five-time MVP, an Olympic gold medalist and the NBA’s first Black head coach.
"Bill Russell‘s DNA is woven through every element of the Celtics organization, from the relentless pursuit of excellence, to the celebration of team rewards over individual glory, to a commitment to social justice and civil rights off the court."
Russell shunned the spotlight. Even the statue -- long overdue in the city of Boston -- made him uncomfortable. He joked at the unveiling that statues "remind me of tombstones, and … (they are) something for pigeons to crap on."
At the start of his speech in front of a star-studded audience, Russell shushed applause and noted, "This is really embarrassing because I don’t know what this is all about."
It felt like a moment any time Russell was present at an event. Whether he was courtside at a Celtics game, or visiting Springfield for Hall of Fame weekend, or at the NBA Finals to hand out the MVP trophy that bears his name, there was a buzz that surrounded his public appearances.
And you knew Russell was nearby not just by the awestruck crowd around him but by his famous laugh that was utterly contagious.
While Russell took greater pride in his efforts off the basketball court, it’s undeniable that he set a standard that all Celtics teams have had to follow with his play on it.
There is an expectation when 17 championship banners hover above you. Russell didn’t just revolutionize the game with the way he played defense, he was the epitome of prioritizing team success over individual stats.
Winning was the only goal. Which is why it stung Stevens to lose an otherwise meaningless regular season game because Russell was courtside. Now serving as Boston’s president of basketball operations, Stevens has worked hard to craft a championship roster. Despite all the success the Celtics have enjoyed in recent seasons, the only thing that matters is the next banner.
Russell is the reason the rafters at the Garden is overcrowded with banners. He’s the reason that players feel an overwhelming sense of pride to put on the Boston uniform. He’s the reason that the only goal in Boston is another championship.
Russell set the standard that has governed Celtics basketball ever since.