As Bill Russell turns 80, reflect on life dedicated to more than just basketball
FEB 12, 2014 6:52p ET
Wednesday is Bill Russell’s 80th birthday. To celebrate, we are re-posting Russell’s speech from the unveiling of his statue at City Hall in Boston last November.
Russell played 13 seasons for the Boston Celtics, winning an NBA-record 11 championships with the team. He claimed five league Most Valuable Player awards and one All-Star MVP trophy. He was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975.
Since his retirement in 1969, Russell has dedicated his life to fighting for social justice and encouraging adults to mentor young people. You can read more about Russell’s impact on society in this piece from his 79th birthday last year.
The following are Russell’s remarks after the statue was unveiled at City Hall Plaza . . .
“What’s this all about?
I went to this thing with the Boy Scouts, a bunch of Eagle Scouts, and during the question-and-answer period one of the kids asked me, 'What is your proudest achievement?' Living to be 75.
I’ve been thinking about what to say. I’ll start out by saying, I am my father’s son. From the first thing I can remember, my father and my mother loved me. So I went out into the world knowing I must be OK if they loved me. I look through this audience and I see some friends. The most important thing to me are the friends that I’ve met. There’s nothing better than that, to have someone who when you think about them, you don’t think about what they can do for you. But you think what can you do to enhance their life. You know that you can’t love anybody unless they let you. So I look into this audience and I see a few people that let me be friends and I in turn let them be my friends.
My father lived in Louisiana and we moved to Oakland, California, and we lived in the projects. It was one bedroom, so my brother and I both had rollaway beds. Still, there was constantly a flow of people from Louisiana that my father would let stay with us. We didn’t have much, but there is something my father said: 'It is not what you give, but what you share, for the gift without the giver is bare.' My father’s philosophy was, 'Always share what I have.'
My last year here in Boston, my grandfather came to visit me. He was 91 years old. He’d been here a couple days and said, 'I’ve got to go home.' 'Why?' I said. 'Is there something I can take care of?' He said, 'Nope, I’ve got to get home.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Well, I have to get home to take care of the old people. Most of their relatives have died and someone has to make sure they get their medicine, their Social Security check and whatever needs they have, so I have to take care of them.'
What I got from that was, I spoke at a school in Fort Worth, Texas, and it was when the Vietnam War was winding down. In the speech I said, 'What we should do was take all the money we wasted on the war and rebuild our school system because it’s a little frayed around the edges.' After the speech a guy walked up to me and said, 'What you’re talking about is raising my taxes. Why should I pay taxes to educate other people’s kids?' I said, 'There are two reasons. One, when your parents bundled you up and sent you to school for the first time, your folks did not build that school. It was there because of other people.' And besides that, there are no ‘other people’s kids’ in the United States. That’s the next generation of America. If we want to keep our society and our country vibrant, we have to build a solid foundation. And the only way to build a solid foundation is to educate the next generation.
That was one of the reasons I got involved in mentoring. When we started we called it “One to One.” One mentor, one mentee. And that’s still the philosophy, one to one. Last year, we passed six million volunteers. And the only thing the kid has to do to qualify is be a kid. While I’m quite flattered with (Boston mayor) Tom Menino and this statue business, I told Tom when he first told me, 'I don’t want that, Tom.' He said, 'Why not?' I said, 'There are two reasons. For one, statues remind me of tombstones. And second, it’s something that ends up being a target for pigeons.' I said, 'Tom, I want you to understand something. I’ll be perfectly satisfied to be buried in an unmarked grave, because if you really, seriously believe in God, no joking about it or anything, he does not need a marker to find you -- and I don’t care if anybody else finds me.'
This is really embarrassing because I don’t know what this is all about. All I’ve ever done was try to never shame my father. When he was about 75, he says to me one day, 'You know I love you.' That’s the first time he said it. Secondly he says, 'I am very proud of you.' That’s the first time he said that. 'I’m proud that you’re my son.' (I said) 'I’m equally proud that you’re my father, because I think you turned out OK.'
I look into this audience and I see friends, relatives, and I realize how extraordinarily fortunate I have been in my life. I look into this audience and I see folks who I’ve had relationships with that are completely and totally positive, and the one thing I’m proud of in these relationships is that we never asked each other for anything -- but were willing to do whatever we can to enhance our friend’s life. That’s the most important thing. Of all the things that have happened to me in my life, the single most important thing is the friends that I have made. My friends have no race, no color, no religion — or not -- and no political views -- or not. If I can come to the conclusion that they are good people, that’s all that matters.
I stand here and I’m trying to figure what this is all about. I’ve never done anything extraordinary. That’s what my father used to tell me. We had an All-Star Game in Los Angeles. The night before we always had a banquet and Chick Hearn was radio announcer and TV guy for the Lakers, and he said ‘Los Angeles is the basketball capital of the world.’ So Red says, ‘Bulls**t.’ That’s the way Red was -- a real diplomat. Red says, 'I tell you what, they ain’t won nothing.'
So I had invited my father down to be my roommate for the All-Star Game. On the way back to our room, my father says, ‘Dammit, they have to shut up about that basketball capital of the world stuff. Red’s right. They ain’t won nothing!’ I said, 'You feel that way about it?' He said, 'Yeah.' So I said, 'OK, I tell you what I’ll do. Tomorrow night in the All-Star Game, we’ll win the game and I’ll be MVP. He says, 'You’re that good?' They had this lineup, individually, they averaged about 150 points a game. Oscar (Robertson) walks in — and Oscar was very diplomatic, too -- saying, blankety blank, blanketly blank, blanketly blank. He says, 'Tell you what, Russ. You take care of the defense, I’ll take care of the offense.' So we handled it. And on the way back to the hotel my father says, 'I didn’t know you were that good.' And I said, 'Well, I don’t ever talk about that because then you become a braggart, and you give people something to aim at to make it even more difficult.'
Take my friend, Jim Brown, here. Jim Brown, I say, is the greatest athlete in the history of America. Jim, in case you don’t know, is a tough guy. Not a bully, just a tough guy. We were talking one day and I says, 'Jim, you know what? You’re getting old.' He says, 'What are you talking about? How can you tell?' I said, 'When you get old, you forget what an ass-kicking feels like.' I don’t think anybody ever talked that way to Jim.
I’m glad that Tom put together a program to keep mentoring going from now on. I, personally, am a big fan of the next generation, and I think we should do all we can to prepare them to take over. The best way to prepare them to take over is to make sure they’re educated. We’re not all doing that right now, but I think that can change, but until we change, some of us are going to do all we can to educate as many as we can.
With all this, with my background, it’s easy to be a true patriot, because a patriot cares about what happens to this country now and in the future. And I do care. One person asked me one time, 'Do you have a lot of friends?' I said, 'No, I have a finite number of friends. You can’t be everybody’s friend because you don’t have the time to be a friend, so I have a finite number.' He says, 'Well, what happens when you get a new friend?' I said, 'Somebody has got to go.'
I thank you for listening to me. I will admit I’m slightly embarrassed by this whole statue thing because all of my relationships were personal. I take all of my relationships as serious as you can because I want all my friendships to be unconditional. When I see my friend, I don’t want to say, he’s my friend because he can do this for me. He’s my friend because I can do this for him or her.
One of the things I really cherish, aside from my father -- the reason I take about my father so much is that my mother died when I was 12. My father loved her and I knew he did. The things that he and my mother gave me were survival skills. How to get your way through life, so as many kids as I can help, to give survival skills and enhance society, I am more than willing to do that and I thank them for the opportunity.
Just one more really brief thing. I played for the Boston Celtics. The biggest honor I got playing for the Celtics was when they made me the captain. They say, the Hall of Fame, eh. I played a team game and the only important statistic was who won the game. So I would always thank my teammates for letting me help them be champions. There are some things I’m proud of. For instance, I never once led the Celtics in scoring. I heard guys on other teams say, you ought to lead your team in scoring. So I’d look at where their team was. When you’re playing a team game, the only important statistic is the final score. Some nights, I’d have four points, but if we won the game it wouldn’t matter.
I always thank my teammates for letting me help them be champions. One of the records we have that I’m most proud of is that we won eight straight championships. To keep a team together to do that eight straight times is remarkable. You can’t go out there and think, 'We’re champs, all we have to do is throw our shoes out there and we’ll be OK.' I’m very proud to have been a Celtic.
Walter Brown, the owner of the Celtics, called me up one day and told me, 'I need to talk to you.' Everybody loved Walter Brown. He was the epitome of a great guy. He says, 'Can you come into my office?' I said, 'Yeah.' So I go into his office and he’s got these papers all over his desk and he says, 'That’s the Boston Celtics, the whole thing, our attendance, what we bring in, all that.' I said, 'Why are you showing me this?' He says, 'Because I’m not paying you enough. You’ve held us up. You know and I know — and anybody who knows knows — that you’re not making enough. But I promise you two things. The first thing is, when we start making money, I’ll make it up to you. The second is that nobody on this team will ever make more money than you. I just want you to know where we’re coming from.'
Walter was a good guy, a real good guy, and I owe most of my success to Walter Brown and Red Auerbach. One last story about Red Auerbach. We lose the last game of the regular season to Syracuse. We come off the floor and Walter Brown’s in our locker room. He’s red as a tomato, saying, ‘You bunch of chokers! I’ll never come into this locker room again. I’m spending too much money on you guys for you to choke. I don’t even want to talk to you guys anymore!’ And he stormed out of the locker room. Three days later, the playoffs start. We walk into the locker room and there’s Walter standing in the middle of the floor. He said, 'Guys, I want to apologize. I was mad and I got carried away.'
(Karen Russell, his daughter, tries to cut him off.) You want me to shut up? One last thing. My grandfather didn’t go to school, but when my father was born, built a schoolhouse for my father to go to school. He took his money to the lumber yard and the guy takes his money and says, You don’t need a school to pick cotton. My grandfather says, 'OK, give me my money back.' He says, 'No, I’m not giving your money back.' My grandfather says, 'Let me get this straight. You’re not going to give me my lumber. You’re not going to give me my money back. Well, sorry, then I’ll just have to kill you.' So the man says, 'In that case, have the lumber.' So he built the schoolhouse that my father went to school in.
My father went through the sixth grade and he dropped out. I spent four years at the university. My daughter here graduated from Harvard Law School. In four generations, we went from no school at all to Harvard Law School. That’s the evolution of our family. So I thank you for putting up with me and letting me tell all these weird stories.”