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‘We still need to celebrate his name’: Bill Russell honored by Basketball Hall of Famers

Celtics legend died before this year’s induction ceremony, but his spirit lived on throughout Basketball Hall of Fame weekend

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Nearly a year ago, Alonzo Mourning was one of chosen few Basketball Hall of Famers on stage who presented NBA icon Bill Russell for his second induction. Mourning was also on stage Saturday with Jerry West at the Hall of Fame’s annual ceremony to again honor Russell albeit posthumously — before the Class of 2022 was inducted.

“He was a pioneer and an important part of all of our lives for those associated with the basketball community,” a solemn Mourning told Andscape following the ceremony. “I’m just proud of the opportunity I had to spend with him throughout the years and share some special moments. He uplifted me in so many different ways. I was inspired by his journey. He is so deserving of any acknowledgement and commemoration.

“We still need to celebrate his name, because he paved the way during a time where he had to deal with so many different obstacles. Not just on the court, but off the court. He paved the way for all of us.”

Respectfully to Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or any legend who ever donned an NBA uniform, Russell had been the face of the NBA for decades for various reasons.

The five-time NBA MVP was the greatest winner the league has ever known, winning 11 championships. The first African American coach in NBA history and a part of the first all-Black starting five. The two-time Hall of Famer was also legendary for speaking out on social justice issues, from his days experiencing racism in Boston to his tweets during his final years.

The renowned civil rights leader once led a player protest when Celtics players were denied service at a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1961. The winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom supported the protest of the national anthem in 2016 by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Oakland, California, native famously joined civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then a UCLA player named Lew Alcindor) in 1967 as they supported boxer Muhammad Ali after he refused to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.

On July 31, Russell died at the age of 88 after longtime health problems. On Aug. 11, he was buried in a private ceremony that included less than 50 people in Seattle, according to a source. Hall of Famer Charles Barkley spoke at the funeral. Hall of Famer Gary Payton, who is also from Oakland, described the ceremony as quiet and small as he believed Russell, who was known for his famous cackling laugh, would have wanted.

“Bill was from West Oakland, and he went to school with my mother and father,” Payton told Andscape after the Hall of Fame ceremony. “Bill’s name always comes up to me. I looked up to him. He went to McClymonds. After he went to Boston and went through what he went through, I looked up to him all the time. I was keen [on] him. He was my OG. They always gave respect to him.

“It’s going to be hard not having me always play around with him and him always playing around with me. It’s going to be hard not being around him. He is not in this world no more, but he is always going to be around in spirit with us.”

Bill Russell (left) raises his No. 6 into the FleetCenter rafters in 1999 alongside then-Celtics president Red Auerbach (right). Following Russell’s death, the NBA announced his No. 6 will be retired throughout the league.

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

On the same day of Russell’s homegoing, the NBA announced a first-of-its-kind honor as his No. 6 will be retired throughout the league. It is the first time a jersey number has been retired throughout the NBA. Major League Baseball retired No. 42, which was worn by Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the MLB, and like Russell an activist.

Mourning was ecstatic that Russell received the unique honor.

“If anybody, he would be the guy for that to happen,” Mourning said.

While Russell has been spotlighted by the Hall of Fame for two straight years, it wasn’t that long ago that, with African American pioneers in mind, he didn’t want anything to do with it.

Russell was named to the inaugural Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 1975 but declined to be inducted. He said in a 2019 tweet that he “refused being the 1st black player to go into the (Hall of Fame)” because he felt “others before me should have that honor.” The Hall of Fame eventually added several Black pioneers through a special committee, including Chuck Cooper, the first African American player selected in the NBA draft in 1950. Russell believed Cooper helped paved the way for him in Boston.

Chuck Cooper III, Cooper’s son, said he is eternally grateful to Russell for opening the door to the Hall for his father and other Black basketball pioneers.

“It means the world to me, my family, and certainly to my father’s legacy,” Cooper II told Andscape. “And the thing about it, I was blessed to have been around Bill Russell on a few occasions. When you think about his impact, not just as the greatest champion in American team sports history, but his impact in civil rights and the way he fought, it certainly didn’t surprise me. But I tell you what, I’m just really forever grateful that he took that stance.”

After the announcement of Cooper’s pending induction in 2019, Basketball Hall of Fame president and CEO John Doleva said he learned Russell was open to accepting his Hall of Fame ring.

The Hall of Fame actually had to make another ring for Russell since they couldn’t locate the ring from 1975. Russell quietly accepted his Hall of Fame ring on Nov. 15, 2019. Mourning presented Russell the ring with fellow Hall of Famers Bill Walton, Elgin Baylor, Ann Meyers and Jamaal Wilkes as well as Doleva in attendance. Doleva said Russell joked that he needed to add more fingers to accommodate the ring.

“It was really kind of a breakthrough moment for the Hall,” Doleva told Andscape. “Bill had a big smile on his face, and I know he appreciated it. I know all the Hall of Famers that were around that night appreciated it. At his request, it was not a public event. It was a very private event. I remember, I forget whose house it was. It was not a Hall of Famer’s house. It was someone that was helping us host a golf event out in Orange County.

“We all kind of hustled into the dining room and Bill sat at the head of the table, and a few words were said, and the ring was put on and Bill took a look at it. He got a big smile on his face.”

Bill Russell attended the ceremony for the Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020, which was delayed until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

“You were sitting there feeling like you were talking to a president. That is the type of intensity he had. He was talking and I was having goose bumps. And I don’t get nervous about a lot of stuff.” — Ben Wallace

Russell attended the pandemic-delayed Class of 2020 ceremony last year mainly because of the induction of late former Los Angeles Lakers star and friend Kobe Bryant. During some downtime, Russell sat down with fellow Hall of Famers who had notable careers in the 1990s and early 2000s, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Paul Pierce and Ben Wallace, in a private room at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut in May 2021. Wallace said him and his other Hall of Fame colleagues from his era were in awe as Russell told story after story.

Wallace, a member of the Class of 2021, said the best part of his entire Hall of Fame experience was hearing Russell tell stories.

“That was the best. Just the fact that we were sitting there and all of us were going to the Hall of Fame ourselves. Me, KG, C-Webb, Paul Pierce,” Wallace told Andscape. “We’re there getting prepared for being inducted into the Hall of Fame. So, for Mr. Russell to be there, offer up some stories and started talking, he had everyone’s attention. We were focused on what we had to say.

“You were sitting there feeling like you were talking to a president. That is the type of intensity he had. He was talking and I was having goose bumps. And I don’t get nervous about a lot of stuff.”

In 2021, Russell was in Springfield, Massachusetts, in what would be the last time as he was inducted into the Hoop Hall as a coach.

Russell led the Celtics to two titles as a player-coach and also coached the Seattle SuperSonics and Sacramento Kings. He was concerned about attending due to his health problems and COVID-19. But Doleva was able to get a private jet for Russell that convinced the Celtics legend to attend the ceremony with James and more than 50 Hall of Famers. Russell was presented by fellow Hall of Famers Barkley, Mourning, Walton, Julius Erving, Spencer Haywood and Rick Welts.

“I’m glad we were able to celebrate him and give him his flowers while he was still there. I commend the NBA for doing an incredible job of putting him on a pedestal,” Mourning said.

Haywood said Russell greeted him with an affectionate “middle finger” because “that was his way of saying hello.”

“He was struggling a little bit, but this was all of his boys,” said Haywood, who was coached by Russell with the SuperSonics. “But he was also enthused about seeing LeBron James, all the young guys who were there, Paul Pierce, and Chris Bosh and all those guys. He was in his glory.”

Russell’s wife, Jeanine, attended the Hall of Fame Gala on Friday night at the Mohegan Sun Casino. She became very emotional afterward when visiting with some of her late husband’s longtime friends, according to a source.

While Russell is now gone, the Hall of Fame and its members will never allow him to be forgotten.

“Whenever we see our great leaders leave us, it hurts. And I took it pretty hard, knowing who he was and that the fact that I had a great relationship with them, it just really was painful to see a man that great leave the earth,” Haywood said. “The world lost a great man when we lost Bill Russell.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.