Los Angeles booed him. Los Angeles mocked him. Los Angeles hated him.
But, my, how Los Angeles respected him.
As a player, Bill Russell took a 6-foot-10 stab through the heart of the Lakers and led the Boston Celtics to seven NBA Finals victories over the franchise’s greatest single foe in their history.
As a person, he was more influential, spending his life fighting racism, seeking justice, and participating in battles bigger than the game of basketball.
In later years, during occasional visits to what was then the Staples Center, Russell would get the most unique reaction when shown on the videoboard.
It was the only time the Boston Celtics were cheered on the Lakers’ home court, but Bill Russell was so big, so strong and so durable.
His death on Sunday at the age of 88 leaves an irreplaceable legacy in the world of basketball.
“One of our darker days,” Jerry West said in a phone interview Sunday. “He was one of those unique people who came up as a difference maker when a difference maker was needed.”
Most polls list Russell as the sixth best player in NBA history, but most polls are crazy because no one had a bigger impact, no one won more games, and no one won a bigger championship.
His 11 NBA titles make him the most decorated American athlete in the history of major professional sports. He has countless blocked shots and a career average of 22.5 rebounds — think of this number! — making him the greatest defender in NBA history.
It was more important than the social activism that would forever make him the basketball reflection of another pioneer.
“In every generation, people stand out not only in their games, but also in their personalities,” West said. “Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson were in the same class.”
Given that Russell’s Celtics defeated West’s Lakers in six of those Finals, you’d think West and Russell would be sworn enemies. One would be wrong.
“Bill was not my competition,” West said. “Bill was my friend.”
The two men often sat together at NBA events, where they shared laughs, wisdom and respect.
“My friendship with him was as if I played with not against him, him,” West said. “He’s been through a lot and handled it all calmly. I admired him as a person.”
The Lakers legend still has a framed commendation quote from Russell in his bathroom, the highest honor being the admiration of his peers.
“I look at it every day and it’s going to be there forever,” West said.
Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell, left, is shown holding head coach Red Auerbach in the shower after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 95-93 to win their eighth straight National Basketball Association Championship on April 28, 1966 at the Boston Garden. (AP Photo) (Not Accredited/AP)
Former professional basketball player and Boston Celtics head coach Bill Russell was awarded the Medal of Freedom by US President Barack Obama at the White House on February 15, 2011 in Washington, DC. Obama said about the billionaire Warren. Buffett and 14 others have been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images (Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Bill Russell of the University of San Francisco basketball team demonstrates how to shoot baskets on February 23, 1956. One of the best, the 6-foot-10-inch center helped his team win 20 straight games. current season. (AP Photo) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
KC Jones, captain of the University of San Francisco Dons, right, with teammate Bill Russell, March 1, 1956. (AP Photo/Robert Houston) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
FILE – Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell stands courtside during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Nov. 1, 2013, in Boston. NBA great Bill Russell has died at the age of 88. Russell died on Sunday, July 31, 2022, his family said on social media. Russell anchored a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 titles in 13 years. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, file) (Michael Dwyer/Associated Press)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA DECEMBER 18, 2017-Former Laker Kobe Bryant pays tribute to Bill Russell, center, as he watches former teammate Sahquille O’Neal’s jersey retirement ceremony at Staples Center on Monday. (Wally Scalij/Los Angeles Times) (Wally Scalij/Los Angeles Times)
FILE – Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell (6) drives for a basket during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Mass., Feb. 21, 1951. Louis takes on Hawks’ Charlie Share (70). (AP) Photo/File) (Unaccredited / Associated Press)
Russell, who led the Celtics to 11 of those championships in 13 seasons from 1957 to 1969, became the NBA’s first black superstar, but he paid the price.
He was never embraced like white Celtics stars like Bob Cousy and John Havlicek. His home in suburban Boston was once ransacked and spray-painted with racial slurs after being honored there.
“There is a toxic atmosphere over this city,” he said. “It’s an environment of hatred, mistrust and ignorance.”
He refused to sign autographs because he didn’t want to be a role model for a community that didn’t accept him, and once boycotted an exhibition game for his teammates when a Kentucky hotel refused service to Black players. So the FBI opened a file on him called “An Arrogant Negro.”
In 1966, while still playing, he was also named coach of the Celtics, becoming the first Black coach of any team in any major US sport. However, police still followed him regularly as he drove through the Boston suburbs.
“You look at everything he’s been through as a black man in Boston and you think, ‘How would he have handled it if he hadn’t been so successful?’ West said.
Russell also felt the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., was a racist institution, so he did not attend the ceremony in 1975 when he became the first black player.
“I don’t care if I ever go to Boston again,” he said.
But he responded with action, not anger. Long before LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick, Russell risked his career to fight for social justice. He said he supported Muhammad Ali’s stance against the draft, held clinics in Mississippi after the assassination of Medgar Evers, and became the first NBA player to hold clinics in Africa.
“He was born for these moments,” West said. “In some ways, what he did off the field was bigger than what he did on it.”
His playing career ended with the Celtics defeating the Lakers in the 1969 Finals, but his impact on sports and society continued throughout his life and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
“But for all his victories, Bill’s understanding of struggle illuminated his life,” his family said in a statement Sunday, adding: “Bill called out injustice with a relentless sincerity that he believed would disrupt the status quo. Although he never had humble intentions, he was always a team player. is a powerful example to inspire work, dedication and thoughtful change.
Jerry West will remember just one image – Russell in the middle of one of his classic collisions.
“There’s a photo of him standing at mid-court, hands on hips, looking absolutely gorgeous, looking down on his property,” West said. “He had a real presence. I will never forget it.”
As the sports world continues its fight for justice and equality, Bill Russell is still standing there.