It was a day to celebrate Elgin Baylor, who was recently honored with a statue outside their home arena by the Los Angeles Lakers. On that warm evening in April 2018, one of Baylor’s greatest antagonists appeared and sat prominently in the crowd.
Bill Russell will never blend in anywhere, and certainly not in his green polo shirt at a Lakers event.
Jerry West, a Baylor teammate from all those years ago, stood behind the bleachers and failed to notice Russell’s presence.
“All damage to this gentleman here,” West said. “I forgot your damn name. What is it? Bill? Last name is Bill Russell, right?
The crowd liked that a bit, and West continued.
“There are more incredible stories in the lost dressing room – and especially when it’s the same damn team and this smiling jackass here.”
A few feet away, Russell was grinning really wide. He was laughing throughout West’s performance. Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships, seven of them in the NBA Finals over the Lakers – and all of them in Celtics green.
West played on six Lakers teams that lost to Russell’s Celtics, and the two later became friends. She made sure the guests gathered that day didn’t mistake her fun magic for real animus, telling them she loved Russell.
It was a bit of a role reversal for Russell, who in his later years usually delivered a zinger. Deeply respected for what he did on and off the court, his shots were always met with laughter, and in the moments when he was honest, his seriousness was met with much appreciation from the players for whom Russell changed the NBA.
On Sunday, Russell’s family announced that he had died peacefully with his wife by his side. He was 88 years old. The statement cited Russell’s championships — two in high school, two in college, one in the Olympics and 11 in the NBA — as a nod to his personal accomplishments and underscored his lifelong fight against racial discrimination. It also included a request for people to keep Russell in their prayers. “Perhaps you’ll still remember a golden moment or two he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he happily explained the real story of how those moments unfolded,” the statement said.
The world of basketball remembered him throughout his life, including humorous moments.
“Where did they find these tall people?” Russell asked on stage at the 2017 NBA Awards. The league gathered other great centers — Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, David Robinson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — to present Russell with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
He stared intently at the group and pointed at each one of them. Then he cupped his hand over his mouth and said in a stage whisper, colorful language, that he was going to beat everyone.
A year later, he was sitting in the audience at the same awards show.
“Aton. Bill Russell,” Hall of Fame forward Charles Barkley said onstage, “thank you.
The camera cut to Russell, who smiled and gave Barkley the middle finger.
That same night, Russell posted a clarification on Twitter: “Sorry everyone, I forgot it was live and I can’t help myself when I see Charles, it’s just pure instinct.”
His jokes often drew well-deserved anger, and they played well on the awe with which the next generation of basketball players viewed him.
They marveled at his talent on the court, how he became the most feared defender of his era—a dominant force before blocks became an official stat. But more than that, they honored how he became the NBA’s first black superstar in an era of segregation, born in the Jim Crow South and fighting racism in society and in the NBA. He and his black teammates were refused service at the restaurant. In the 1950s, he spoke out about the NBA’s unofficial quota system that prevented more black players from being in the league.
There are some Hall of Fame players who aren’t shy about sharing their opinion that the last era of basketball was much worse than theirs.
However, as Russell got older, he often showed that he received love and respect in return from some of the game’s younger stars.
At the 2008 All-Star Game, he was caught on camera sharing a tender moment with Lakers guard Kobe Bryant.
“I watch a lot of your games,” Russell told Bryant.
“Thank you,” Bryant said with a smile on his face.
Russell told Bryant that when he watches games, he tries to understand what certain players’ agendas are in those games and then see how well they were able to execute their plan.
“Me too,” Bryant said impatiently. “But I got it because I read your book.”
They both laughed and Russell told Bryant that he was as proud as if he were his own son. Bryant thanked him again and they hugged.
Years later, Bryant said that Russell became a mentor to him, that he simply picked up the phone to call him and ask for Russell’s advice.
On January 26, 2020, Bryant died in a helicopter crash with his daughter Gianna and seven other people. The Lakers and Celtics faced each other in Los Angeles a few weeks after the crash. Russell attended the game wearing a Lakers jersey — Bryant’s jersey — and a hat with Bryant’s initials stitched into a yellow heart.
Their relationship transcended the bitter Lakers-Celtics rivalry, as did Russell’s relationship with West.
He also shared a special bond with Kevin Garnett, who in 2008 led the Celtics to their first NBA Finals since 1987. Garnett started his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but was traded to the Celtics in 2007.
“You are my favorite player to watch; You never let me down, Russell told Garnett in the arena hallway that season. ESPN aired the footage ahead of an interview between Russell and Garnett in 2008.
“You make so many jokes,” Garnett said. “I don’t know if it’s real or not.”
“No, it’s real,” Russell replied as Garnet’s laugh turned serious. “And you never let me down. And finally put on the right uniform.”
The clip then showed an interview between Russell and Garnett. They sat in chairs across from each other, surrounded by Celtics memorabilia.
“I think you’re going to win at least two or three championships here,” Russell said. “And if you don’t, but I see you play like you’re supposed to, I’ll share one of mine with you.” He added: “If you play the way you play and dedicate yourself to it, they will come.”
Later in the conversation, Russell gave Garnett the same message he gave Bryant.
“I couldn’t be more proud of you than I am of my own children,” Russell said.
Russell and Garnet looked at each other thoughtfully. It was hard to tell behind his square glasses, but Russell’s eyes were watering as he spoke to Garnet.
He finished with a joke about how close Garnett’s No. 5 was to No. 6, his own number, and then laughed, his voice booming and raspy and bubbly all at once—a laugh anyone who heard it would ever forget.