Souhan: Bill Russell’s legacy as a great player and great man

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Bill Russell, who died on Sunday at the age of 88, may be the greatest winner in the history of men's American sports. His defensive prowess, rebounding dominance and team-oriented approach thrust him into debates regarding the greatest athlete of all time even though his offensive resume was surpassed by many.

For those who use scoreboards and trophies to evaluate team players, Russell became symbolic of the selfless athlete, the man who won big by doing the so-called little things.

Had he done nothing other than win basketball games, as a collegian, pro and coach, he would belong on any short list of the most important figures in basketball history. He won 11 NBA titles as a player. But he was so much more than a basketball player.

Russell became the first Black head coach of a major American sports team. He used his fame to become a fearless and important American activist and a blunt witness to the racism he faced in Boston even as he was helping the Celtics become one of the most dominant dynasties ever.

Russell would say that he did not play for Boston, which he viewed as a racist city, but for the Celtics organization. Karen Russell, his daughter, once offered this memory of growing up in Boston to the New York Times, including a reference to a spray-painted racial epithet that is not repeated here:

"One night we came home from a three-day weekend and found we had been robbed. Our house was in a shambles. ... The burglars had poured beer on the pool table and ripped up the felt. They had broken into my father's trophy case and smashed most of the trophies. I was petrified and shocked at the mess; everyone was very upset. The police came, and after a while, they left. It was then that my parents pulled back their bedcovers to discover that the burglars had defecated in their bed.

"Every time the Celtics went out on the road, vandals would come and tip over our garbage cans. My father went to the police station to complain. The police told him that raccoons were responsible, so he asked where he could apply for a gun permit. The raccoons never came back.

"The only time we were really scared was after my father wrote an article about racism in professional basketball for the Saturday Evening Post. … We received threatening letters, and my parents notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation. What I find most telling about this episode is that years later, after Congress had passed the Freedom of Information Act, my father requested his FBI file and found that he was repeatedly referred to therein as 'an arrogant Negro who won't sign autographs for white children.'"

Russell spoke frequently about racism in America, once describing being stopped in Los Angeles as a supposed suspect in a Brink's truck robbery. Russell stretched his hands as high as he could in the air, refusing to lower them at the police officers' request, telling a gathering crowd that he did not have a gun and did not want to get shot while reaching for his wallet.

Eventually, an officer, looking at his wallet, asked if he was the famous Bill Russell and dismissed him. "They had stopped me for nothing," he wrote. "And I gave them back some of their own hassle."

White people, and white writers, too, often Disneyify the life stories of black athletes, chronicling the racism they encounter on their way to a better life, without noting that the better life doesn't necessarily protect them from racism.

The great Jackie Robinson never got over the way white players and fans treated him when he was breaking baseball's color barrier. Just because he handled his travails with admirable restraint and class doesn't mean he forgave those who persecuted him.

Former Twins star Torii Hunter told me that after he signed a massive free-agent contract with the Los Angeles Angels, he was driving his luxury car to his luxury house in California when cops pulled him over, pulled guns and made him lie face down in his own driveway.

He had made the mistake of driving while Black. Russell spoke and wrote often about how living while Black, even while famous and Black, did not make life in America easy for him.

He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, and defended Colin Kaepernick. USA Today writer Mike Freeman on Sunday called Russell "one of the great civil rights heroes of our time."

Let that be his foremost legacy.