The NBA doesn’t always get everything right - who does? - but they certainly got this right: the league has retired Bill Russell’s #6 league-wide. The players who are currently wearing it, like LeBron James, will be allowed to continue to wear it for as long as they wish, but no one else will ever wear #6 again.
It’s a fitting honor not just for Russell’s competitive accomplishments -he’s the greatest winner in the history of team sports - but for the sort of man he was.
We’re not positive about this but it won’t miss by much if any. Russell was born in 1934 which would probably mean his father was born somewhere around the turn of the century. Let’s say 1910 for argument’s sake.
That means that his grandfather was old enough to know many people who had been enslaved.
In this video, Russell talks about his grandfather’s strong desire for independence and how determined he was to stay as free as possible - no easy task for a Black man in West Monroe, Louisiana in the 19th century and the early part of the 20th.
But, like his son and grandson, he lived on his own terms. When the town refused to build a school for Black children, the elder Russell, who was functionally illiterate, got the lumber and, with the help of some friends, built the school anyway.
As Russell points out here, in four generations, his family went from illiteracy to a sixth grade education in the school that his grandfather built, to a degree from the University of San Francisco to, in his daughter’s case, Harvard Law School.
If you’ve never read any of Russell’s books, we really encourage you do do so. He tells powerful stories about family, struggle, and overcoming. Like his father and grandfather, who stood up to the Klan when he built that school, he was unwilling to compromise his sense of manhood for anyone.
The greatest compliment you could give Russell, and possibly the one that would have moved him the most, might have been to say that he lived up to his father and grandfather’s extraordinary standards.
His contributions to basketball and to helping America become a better, more just place, are profound. Retiring his number league-wide is a small but gracious way of acknowledging that he gave America so much more than America was willing to give him as a young man.
If you do read his books, look for the stories about the mule, the train set, his aunt and, yes, the school. The Russells really are an extraordinary family.
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