Commentary

Bill Russell earned every honor

Updated: February 16, 2011, 1:55 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

"I always felt it was better to understand," Bill Russell once said, "than to be understood." At a heavy cost, Bill Russell understood. He understood contradiction: between the individual and the team, the distance between black and white, and how different things could be if he was dealing with a person or a people.

If you don't flinch from the truth, Bill Russell is all things human and ultimately inspirational: heartbreaking, right, wrong, independent, excellent, revolutionary and flawed. He understood the difference between the American ideal and its often contradictory realities. He understood that publicly navigating these poles could drive a person insane.

[+] EnlargeBill Russell
Alex Wong/Getty ImagesBill Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday. During the ceremony, President Obama also called for a statue honoring Russell in Boston.

The result is a man, now 77 years old, comprised of walls and shades, moods and pride, and beauty. When Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony Tuesday, another page of the American story was punctuated and elevated. When President Obama clasped the United States' highest civilian honor around Russell's neck, the question of which vision of America wins for a person born without rights or hope during the Great Depression was answered.

Russell is the American dream -- the dream of the slave, as Maya Angelou would say -- embodying the very essence and curses of this land, damaged by the lifelong effects of the trek, soothed by its rewards. Russell always said he owed the public nothing, and yet we are the ones who emerged better for his suffering and success. Only he knows if for him the trip was ultimately worth it.

Walk around Boston, the first great American city, and talk basketball. You'll feel the power and birthright of the famed Boston Celtics, a pedigree created by Russell, for the Celtics were a good team before him, a dynasty after. His work is unassailable: 11 championships in 13 years, eight titles in a row, with back-to-back titles as a player-coach. Russell was the first black head coach in American pro sports history, the first black inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame, the greatest winner ever.

These details are simply the résumé, available to anyone who can read a biography. But if you understand basketball and its history, it is virtually impossible -- even if you were there -- to do justice to the Russell revolution. Imagine watching a game where only one player played above the rim and blocked shots and played help defense while the rest of the league never left the ground. He played a different game and in the process created a global one.

Black History Month

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And maybe it wasn't even a true revolution, because Russell is still the only front line player in the history of the NBA to play defense first and win so much. He understood contradiction, for the greatest team player in professional sports has always stood alone.

An elevated mixture of history and sport is one of Boston's beauties, and yet the distance between Russell and the city has always been tangible and obvious. That divide simmers despite the four decades that have passed since his last act on a basketball court, defeating the Lakers for a championship, despite his standing as an unquestioned national icon, despite both the best intentions of his devoted supporters and his own. This is the price of the journey.

Walk along the curve of the Muddy River Basin, toward the Fens and see the bust of the poet-activist John Boyle O'Reilly, who in the late 19th century believed that the city's two downtrodden minorities -- the Irish and the black -- should form a workingman's coalition instead of engaging in the class warfare that plagued the city for a century.

Cross Beacon Street at the State House and before you walk into the Common pay respect to Augustus Saint-Gaudens' bronze sculpture of the Robert Gould Shaw and his valiant, doomed 54th Regiment. Follow Columbus Avenue in the South End and view the Underground Railroad sculptures.

Go to Fenway Park and see the statue of Ted Williams, to Quincy Market and see Red Auerbach sitting on a bench. Check out the new ones at the Garden of Bobby Orr flying and of Larry Bird. They are Boston sports royalty.

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AP Photo/Stanley HuTed Williams is one of many athletes and coaches honored with statues in Boston.

But nowhere in the city can you find Bill Russell, American pro sports' greatest champion, because there is no statue, no Bill Russell Bridge, highway, tunnel, street or square.

There are times when Black History Month feels ponderous, obligatory, dour, a somber exercise to keep our darkest chapters in the foreground, a reminder no different than revisiting the Holocaust, World War II, Vietnam or slavery. The resulting backlash, the weariness of discussing America at its worst, is partially understandable, but ultimately disrespectful to the difficult footsteps people took.

Instead of being exasperated or threatened, we should distill the details down to the man and the life he lived, and think about how we might have reacted to the indignities of his days and understand that there is nothing easy about Bill Russell because there is nothing easy about 20th century America.

So much of the Russell narrative was rooted not in what happened to him and why and how much it hurt and changed him but in how he reacted. It is so easy to forget when we talk about Russell and other trailblazers, that we're asking current athletes and fans -- many just kids in their 20s -- to comprehend and analyze a world they've just entered as adults. It is easy to forget that Russell and Jackie Robinson and Henry Aaron played when sports were more progressive than the rest of the country.

Like all of us, he lived with the contradictions of an America in transition. He would shake your hand but would not sign autographs. After the Celtics won the 1969 title, Russell's 11th and final, he did not attend the victory parade -- and he was the coach.

The Celtics retired his number in 1972. Russell was not there. He did not attend his own induction to the Hall of Fame. Periodically, a movement arises to celebrate Russell. Kevin Garnett's arrival in 2007 and his conversations with the legend during the subsequent championship season brought Russell back into the public eye. In the early 1990s, there was talk of a Russell statue, but somewhere in the haze -- some said Russell did not want to be honored/exploited as an individual; others said the will wasn't strong enough -- nothing materialized.

As a young man, Russell found what we all find, that people, on an individual basis, are just people. He loved and married a black woman and later, despite our country's past and our scars and our differences and our history, loved and married a white woman, by whose side he remained until the day she died, in 2009. His old Celtics teammate Gene Conley said he learned more about life and race relations from Bill Russell than any other person. Auerbach treated him as a man, as did his old coach at McClymonds High in West Oakland, George Powles.

But he also knew how different, how lethal, individuals could be in a group. One white person might be OK, but taken together, whites were different. As a group, they were now subject to rules, a caste system of superiority in place.

In his 1966 autobiography "Go Up for Glory," Russell detailed the slight of being reduced by people and how it provided the fuel for his life, but he was not cynical. A cynical man stops caring.

[+] EnlargeRussell
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireBill Russell scored 14,522 points and grabbed 21,620 rebounds with the Celtics. He also marched with Martin Luther King Jr.

The sports press, unskilled and disinterested with the emerging black athlete but more importantly so secure in its own place, called Russell bitter. When he was named head coach -- an important, forgotten element of the narrative was that Russell was Auerbach's fourth choice -- he was asked apparently without irony if he would be able to coach white players without being prejudiced. It was an offensive question that assumed black prejudice but white impartiality.

He knew the falseness of that premise because he was butting up against the myth that excellence should always overcome attitudes. He was bitter, especially after vandals broke into his home, ransacked his house and, for good measure, defecated in his bed.

"Give me the chance," the late Buck O'Neil used to say, "and I'll do the rest." Russell was fierce and great and seized those chances. He lived as we are taught to as Americans: no handouts, just hard work. And yet he was constantly wounded by the seemingly limitless times when people are not at their best. In 1983 he was a CBS broadcaster when his partner Rick Barry poked fun at an old photo of Russell, joking on national television about Russell's "watermelon smile."

In an excellent feature by George Vecsey in the New York Times last week, Russell said he was most honored that his father was proud of him, both as a man and as a father, but the Medal of Freedom ranked a "close second." Maybe it is fitting that there is no statue of Russell in Boston or anywhere, for he always walked alone.

Periodically, the lament that sports doesn't matter as it once did -- present, progressive, ahead of society -- will arise and indict today's golden heroes while coating the old days with an unnecessary layer of nostalgia. That is unfair both to Bill Russell's time and Michael Jordan's. Jordan and all contemporary players and citizens do not have to fight the battles that Russell and the people of his time fought. We are all are better for it. That is a good thing, maybe the best sign society may still be headed in the right direction. He did the work for us.

Russell wanted the best from people, not the contradictions that lead to complacency. He wants for humanity now, and wanted for it then. The expressed rages and frustrations come from the business of caring and pain of being let down by man not meeting his obligation. As he wrote in 1966: "We of the old can now only help to guide the young -- not black, not white, not yellow. Just, the children. For all my battles, I have learned just that. We, white and black, on one side or the other, have made our prejudices and our philosophies and now fight our battles. Pray, God, that in the future our children will not have to."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.

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