One of the best road trips of my life was also one of the shortest. For about 45 minutes, in Boston traffic that I actually wanted to be slower, I once rode around the city with Bill Russell.
I’d like to tell you I was Russell’s plus one in this 1999 moment, but it was even better than that; I was his plus two. Russell sat across from me in the back of a shiny black limo, and Julius Erving sat next to him. They were in town to promote Russell’s night of appreciation at the Garden. We now know what a legendary night that was, with industry geniuses Aretha Franklin, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Jim Brown and dozens of others here to celebrate Russell, Boston’s true philosopher-king.
Russell clearly made all of his teammates better players, helping each of them reach for something they didn’t know they had. He had a knack for doing that with people who were around him, too.
During that limo ride, he teased Dr. J about his 1984 fight with Bird. He cackled, loudly and hysterically – as only Russell could – and eventually the reluctant Doctor was laughing about something that he’d previously considered out of bounds. That was one of Russell’s gifts. He pushed boundaries in search of results, and sometimes the result was a laugh, a piece of legislation, or an opponent’s snuffed layup.
He wasn’t simply a citizen of his time. Like any true innovator, he elevated everything associated with his time, whether it was his sport or his society. He didn’t do everything right, but he did everything with purpose.
It always makes me cringe when I hear dismissals of Russell’s and the Celtics’ dominance in a fledgling NBA. How hard could it be, the logic goes, competing in an eight- or 10- or 14-team league?
None of it, on the court or off, was as easy as it looked. Russell won five MVPs, and when he didn’t win it, Chamberlain usually did. In Russell and Chamberlain’s “off” years, the MVPs were Hall of Famers Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, and Wes Unseld. It was a small circle that lacked fraudulence. The game evolved because they pushed it and each other.
But that was just the intense basketball side, which was still easier to face than Russell’s most strident adversary, unapologetic American racism. It’s hard enough to be the face of a new league, which Russell was by the time he was 25. It’s even harder to do that when there are debates, in your home city and in your country, about the rights of people with faces like yours.
There was no Voting Rights Act for Russell at 25. The March on Washington was still four years away. He was proud and defiant and outspoken long before Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. No one in NBA history faced what Russell did, while winning the way he did, and responding to the complicated backdrop the way he did.
At one point during our ride, driving through parts of Roxbury and Dorchester, Russell talked about his relationship with Boston. He’d successfully compartmentalized the city for his entire career. That is, Boston was the place where people had done and said vile things to him, and Boston was the place where he’d found, as he said that day, “Heaven on Earth. There was nothing – nothing – better than playing with my teammates and playing for the Boston Celtics.”
As much sense as mentally dividing the city made for Russell when he was in his 20s and 30s, he said he didn’t want to do it anymore. He was 65 when he said it. I was 29. His words changed me, made me better, because he encouraged me to strive for the alternative he’d found instead: wholeness. He was a visionary, after all, and so he saw growth when it was obvious and he imagined growth even when other people couldn’t see it.
He was excited by the changes he saw in the city, and how it was becoming more embraceable to different people. He mirrored the city because he was doing the same thing. He counted old and new Celtics alike as his friends. He loved the modern NBA, a league that he helped popularize. He told me that day that he marveled at the sheer strength and athleticism of Shaquille O’Neal and said how much he respected him.
“But,’’ he said, “I want you to think about this for a minute: you see how powerful Shaq is? I’m telling you that Wilt was just as strong, if not stronger.”
He unleashed that distinctive laugh when he explained how his teammates would subtly neutralize Wilt: they’d whack him, bump him, annoy him any chance they got. They knew, ultimately, that if things went left Russell would be there to save them.
A couple of weeks ago, when Russell was still with us, I ran into a high school basketball player who told me about his team’s quest for a championship. I immediately thought of a Russell story to inspire him. It’s the one where Russell decided one postseason that he wanted to average 20 points per game. But upon further reflection, he realized the goal was about his ego more than the team, so his new goal was to up his rebounding instead. The Celtics, of course, won the championship that year.
Before I told the young player the story, I quizzed him first.
“Who’s the greatest winner in the history of basketball?” I asked.
He didn’t hesitate.
There was something magical in that half-second. Russell may be physically gone, but the ride is not over.
NBC Sports Boston will reflect on Bill Russell's many contributions to basketball and society in an hour-long special, "Remembering Bill Russell", airing at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch on television or stream the program here.