Jerry West remembers Bill Russell as ‘difference maker’ on par with Jackie Robinson

Jerry West #44 of the Los Angeles Lakers attempts a reverse layup against Bill Russell #6 of the Boston Celtics

Lakers star Jerry West attempts a reverse layup against Boston Celtics great Bill Russell during a game in the 1960s. Russell died Sunday at the age of 88. (Focus on Sports / Getty Images)

Los Angeles screwed him. Los Angeles was mocking him. Los Angeles hated him.

But, my god, how LA respected him.

As a player, Bill Russell was the 10-foot knife through the heart of the Lakers, leading the Boston Celtics to seven NBA Finals victories over the franchise’s greatest single foe in history.

As a person, however, he was far more influential, spending his life fighting against racism, pushing for justice, participating in battles much bigger than a basketball game.

In his later years, during his occasional visits to the then-Staples Center, Russell would get a very unique reaction when he appeared on the video board.

A standing ovation.

It was the only time a Boston Celtic would ever cheer on the Lakers court, but Bill Russell was so big, strong and durable.

His death on Sunday at the age of 88 leaves the basketball world with a legacy that cannot be replaced.

“One of our darkest days,” Jerry West said in a phone interview Sunday. “He was one of those unique people who come in as a difference maker when a difference maker is 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 overcame the biggest games, and no one was a bigger champion.

Lakers legend Jerry West chats with Celtics great Bill Russell alongside Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

Lakers legend Jerry West, center, chats with Celtics great Bill Russell, right, as he sits next to NBA all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the 2018 NBA All-Star Game at Staples Center. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

His 11 NBA titles make him the most decorated American athlete in the history of major professional sports. His countless blocked shots and career average of 22.5 rebounds — think about that number! — making him arguably the best defender in NBA history.

Far more important than all of that was a social activism that will forever make him the basketball reflection of another pioneer.

“In every generation people make a difference not just with their game, but with their personality,” West said. “Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson were in the same class.”

One might think that West and Russell would be sworn enemies when you consider that Russell’s Celtics beat West’s Lakers in six of those Finals. Someone would make a mistake.

“Bill was not my opponent,” West said. “Bill was my friend.”

The two men often sat together at NBA events, sharing laughs, wisdom and respect.

“My friendship with him was such that it was almost like playing with him instead of against him,” West said. “He’s been through so much and handled it all so quietly. I admired him so much as a person.”

The Lakers legend still has a framed free quote from Russell hanging in his bathroom, a declaration that his greatest honor is the admiration of his peers.

“I look at it every day and it’s going to stay there forever,” West said.

He led the Celtics to those 11 championships in 13 seasons from 1957 to 1969, Russell 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 suburban Boston home was once ransacked and defaced with spray-painted racial slurs after he held a memorial service there.

“A poisoned atmosphere hangs over this city,” he once said. “It’s an atmosphere of hate, mistrust and ignorance.”

He refused to sign autographs because he didn’t want to be a role model for a society that didn’t accept him, and once led his teammates in a boycott of an exhibition game when their hotel in Kentucky refused to serve black players. So the FBI opened a file against him in which they call him, “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 regularly followed him as he drove through his neighborhood in the Boston suburbs.

“You look at everything he went through in Boston as a Black man and you think, if he hadn’t had the big time, how would he have been treated?” West said.

Russell also felt that the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts was a racist institution, so when he became the first black player inducted in 1975, he did not appear at the ceremony.

“I don’t care if I go to Boston again,” he once said.

Boston Celtics star Bill Russell relaxes in a hot tub after practice in San Francisco on December 31, 1963.

Boston Celtics star Bill Russell reads a newspaper while relaxing in a hot tub after practice in San Francisco on December 31, 1963. (San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

However, he responded with more than anger, he responded with action. Long before LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick, Russell risked his career to fight for social justice. He spoke out in support of Muhammad Ali’s stance against the draft, held clinics in Mississippi after the assassination of Medgar Evers, and was the first NBA player to run clinics in Africa.

“He was born for those moments,” West said. “In some ways, what he did off the field was more magnified than what he did on the field.”

His playing career ended with the Celtics’ 1969 Finals victory over the Lakers, but his impact on sports and society continued throughout the rest of his life, and in 2011 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“But for all the victories, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life,” his family said in a statement Sunday, adding later, “Bill called out injustice with a relentless honesty that was meant to disrupt the status quo and with a powerful example that, however humble its intent, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change.”

Jerry West will remember a unique image – Russell in the middle of one of their classic clashes.

“There’s a picture of him standing in the center of the field, hands on his hips, looking very regal, looking out over his estate,” 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 standing still.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.