WORCESTER – Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell would have turned 89 this Sunday. The Celtics will honor him this weekend at the Garden.
Russell, wholast August, was more than an 11-time champion. He was vocal civil rights activist and a trailblazer in so many ways.
His Hall of Fame teammate Bob Cousy, a legend in his own right, saw it all from the beginning. Cousy still remembers Russell’s first NBA game on December 22, 1956.
“He joined us late because he played in the Olympics. First game, mid-December against St Louis,” Cousy told WBZ-TV. “He revolutionized the defensive game, became the best shot blocker of all time.”
The accomplishments are many – 11 time NBA champion, first Black head coach in the NBA, Olympic gold medalist, 2-time college national champion, passionate civil rights activist and more – but it’s the person Cousy still remembers the most.
“He could be the most outgoing, gregarious joke teller whatever, laughing that hideous laugh that he had,” Cousy said. “If we checked in to a hotel I’d say put him on the first floor put me on the fifth. I don’t want to listen to that laugh.”
Cousy said it wasn’t all laughs. He described Russell as being guarded when he was younger, and with good reason. Russell endured constant racism while playing in Boston.
“He was adding one championship after another and they broke into his house in Reading and defecated on the floor and wiped it into whatever. He was the toast of the athletic world, and having to deal with all the indignities,” Cousy said.
He remembers those incidents taking their toll, and Russell being unapologetic about calling it out.
“He told the world Boston was the most bigoted city in the world, would rather be in jail than be the mayor of Boston, stuck his tongue out at whitey and I think that’s what I would’ve done,” Cousy said.
While Cousy and Celtics coach Red Auerbach were anti-racists before the term was invented, Cousy said he still has pangs of regret in his relationship with Russell.
“I had a to do list, things to do before I died, one of the things was drop Russ a note and tell him I should have done more. I have felt guilty about not having done more outwardly,” he told WBZ.
There is a silver lining and it’s that Russell’s relationship with the city evolved over time, as he told WBZ in 1999.
“It was a place I found extraordinarily interesting, I would not have changed a single thing.,” Russell said back then.
After all, Russell once famously said “Learning is a daily experience and a lifetime mission.”
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