‘A magic figure:’ Jim Calhoun, Swin Cash and others remember Celtics legend Bill Russell as larger than life

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A young Jim Calhoun showed up at the Celtics tryout camp in the late 1960s, and one man towered above all, on the court, in the hallways, wherever he appeared.

“He was very complex in many ways. He had a fun side to him. He had the greatest laugh I’ve ever heard,” Calhoun said. “He didn’t really laugh. He cackled, and it was infectious. And when he walked in, you knew he was there. It was Bill Russell walking in. The reverence [his teammates] had for him. He was just masterful. He could intimidate on the court, off the court, with is words, with his actions. A fascinating, fascinating figure.”

Russell, a giant and a champion in the game of basketball, and in every other sense, died Sunday at 88. To the end of his life, his was a presence to be felt, Calhoun and other state sports figures recalled.

“In many ways, he was a magic figure,” said Calhoun, the Hall-of-Famer and three-time national champ as UConn’s men’s basketball coach. “His biggest gift in life was his identification of a problem. How many guys in the 1960s and ′70s, would be willing to put their careers on the line by standing in lines, protesting together with Black leaders. He did something in a sport that today reflects Bill Russell.”

Calhoun became a regular at Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach’s basketball camps in Marshfield, Mass., helping out as a counselor after his playing aspirations ended, and eventually he got to know Russell, who won two NCAA championships, an Olympic gold medal and 11 NBA championships, with five MVP awards.

“He didn’t pay much attention to me,” Calhoun said. “Once he got to know me, he was one of those guys who kind of watched you. He’d say, ‘Can’t you [bleeping] jump?’ Or, ‘Do you have to shoot every time you touch the [bleeping] ball?’ He played games, and if he knew you were all right, he might walk by you and say, ‘I’ve heard some good things, Calhoun.’ He’d giveth and taketh away. You’d like a friendly greeting from him, and just when you expected it, you didn’t get one, and just when you didn’t expect one, you got it.”

An older Russell, decades removed from his playing and coaching, became a fan of women’s basketball and, one day in 2010, dropped in on the Seattle Storm for a visit. Former UConn and Hall-of-Fame inductee Swin Cash, saw the “passion in his eyes” for the game and they connected. Cash shared her experiences with Russell, his “smile, laugh and bigger-than-life personality,” on social media.

“My first time meeting you started with me asking a question about the Civil Rights Movement and Boston,” Cash, now in the front office of the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, recalled via Instagram. “Your question back was trying to figure out how I played for [Bill] Laimbeer? ... My heart is so grateful for the opportunity I received to share my appreciation for you, with you. To spend a moment in your presence was an experience, and uplifting.”

UConn football coach Jim Mora had Russell come to speak to teams he coached in the past. “An amazing mentor,” Mora said, “an inspiration, a caring and generous man.” On Thursday, Mora opened his first training camp at UConn by telling his players about Russell.

“I know he’s not your era, and I respect that,” Mora told his players. “He’s a brilliant, brilliant man. He’s engaging, he’s funny, but above all else, his standard of excellence. In winner-take-all games, he was 21-0.”

That refers to NCAA Tournament games, the Olympic gold medal final in 1956 and decisive Game 5′s or 7′s in the NBA. Russell’s teams were 21-for-21.

Russell, born in Monroe, La., in 1934, grew up in Oakland, Calif., and played college basketball at San Francisco. He reached the Celtics in 1956 and used his stature to advance the Civil Rights movement. After NAACP leader Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi in 1963, Russell went there to support the family and run an integrated basketball camp. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s.

“He wasn’t an egomaniac running around,” Calhoun said. “He had his beliefs, his convictions. What was wrong, it wasn’t always pretty. Remember, when he first came to Boston, he wasn’t exactly loved, because he was a Black figure standing up for injustice in our society.”

Russell, a slender 6 feet 10, averaged 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists during his NBA career. Although blocks were not an official stat in those days, Russell likely averaged in double figures, or close to it.

“When you’re 6-10 and you can high jump 7 feet, he was an incredibly gifted athlete,” Calhoun said. “Someone once asked, ‘Where did you get the word soar, s-o-a-r?” From him. He’d soar when he blocked a shot. He’d soar. Like an eagle with an 8-foot wingspan flying down off the cliffs, that’s what Russell looked like when he blocked a shot or got a rebound. He was incredibly fast. He could catch anything, and he was smart. He’d block the early shot, even if it goes in, just to put fear into your heart.”

Calhoun came to forge friendships with many of the Celtics of the period, and remembers Russell was the one player who could walk into Auerbach’s office any time, without an invitation. He credits Russell for the NBA’s reputation as a “player’s league,” and for establishing the template for athletes to use their platform for social justice.

“Bill will be remembered for his activism, selflessness and commitment to principle, not to mention a championship record that is unrivaled in team sports,” said John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Naismith Hall of Fame. “The game of basketball will forever be impacted and indebted to Mr. Russell.”

Russell was induced into the Hall of Fame as a player in 1975 but refused to appear and accept because he felt the induction of a Black player — he was the first — was long overdue. In 2019, he came to Springfield for a private ceremony to accept his ring, and two years later was inducted as a coach.

“Bill Russell’s legacy is he is the greatest winner in team sports, ever,” Calhoun said. “He was one of the great players in the league, he won championships, but he put that all on the line to try to help others. He was a kind man, he was a thoughtful man, but he was a driven man, driven in the sense of helping others. Our sport, my sport, basketball, is so much better for having the greatness of Bill Russell. There’ll never be another like him — there hasn’t been since.”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com.