Let’s get this straight: I’m a Lakers fan, which has certain implications about my regard for the Celtics. O.K.? Now, here’s something that I’m really happy to note.
William Fenton Russell received recognition that was very much deserved yesterday when US President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. Mr. Obama noted that Mr. Russell, the leader of the Celtic teams that beat the Lakers frequently during my formative years, describes himself not as a basketball player, but as a man who plays basketball. “Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men,” Obama said. “He marched with King; he stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players, and made possible the success of so many who would follow.”
Mr. Russell’s extraordinary personal strength and resilience was tried repeatedly. He persevered, as too many people had to persevere. John Taylor documents some of this in The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball (see here). He is far, far more than a basketball player. Even if he was 5’9″ tall, people should look up to Bill Russell.
I linked the image here to a snippet of video published on YouTube by CBS News. The White House has published video of the full ceremony.
By the way, here’s a belated doff of the cap to Mr. Russell, who shares 12 February as a birthday with Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.