I never met Bill Russell. I’ve seen him in person several times. He was whisked past me, in a wheelchair, once at Oracle Arena. Even then, his rolling presence felt like a tangible wind, a gust of aura that produced chills. The voice in your head can’t help but state the obvious: “That’s Bill Russell.” Even in a setting plush with superstars, William Felton Russell felt grander. Just seeing him was to witness a living monument of history and pride, as if the Lincoln Memorial got up and started walking.
I never met Bill Russell. Never broke bread with him. Never had a deep conversation with him. Never got close enough to see the coarseness of his white goatee or be warmed by his resilient gap-toothed smile. I never met Bill Russell, but I couldn’t escape him. Because while most superstars and celebrities exist on erected pedestals, some are still giant enough to keep their feet on the ground.
His professional success, his love for his people, and his courage did the dual task of representing his people and empowering them. He was not only an example of what was possible, that Black people could make it to incredible heights, but getting there didn’t require compromise. He was also part of the revolution that was being televised, on the platform of sports, for the inspiration of future generations.
Certainly, this view is impacted by being born and raised in Oakland, where Russell is on The Town Rushmore. Not of sports, but of impact. Russell is among the last of a critical generation. One that produced these hubs of Black success in places like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. One that went and took what was promised to them during Reconstruction but never delivered.
Russell was a pioneer of that generation, a bastion for what it represented and what it instilled. He was a pillar standing at the intersection of sports and Black progress, excellence and expectation, dominance and demand.
From about 1910 to the end of the Jim Crow era, an estimated six million Black people fled the South. They trekked north and west, preferring uncertainty over inhumanity. They arrived with the stubbornness that made them leave and a zeal for liberation. One of those hubs was Oakland, which became known for its culture of art and hustle, of resourcefulness and rebellion. The same culture currently sifting through the fingers of gentrification like sand was produced largely by this Great Migration.
Russell’s family moved to Oakland in the early 1940s. The far West had by then become known as a place where people of color could find work and community. Not only did World War II produce jobs in the area, but West Oakland, as the last stop on the transcontinental railroad, became an epicenter of commerce — for African-Americans and migrants from Mexico. It was such a robust area, San Francisco, which boomed during the Gold Rush, countered the growth of West Oakland by building the Bay Bridge, and getting in on the action at the new popular port.
After a while, the success for some Blacks in the Bay Area had people calling the likes of West Oakland and the Fillmore district “Harlem West.”
The Russells arrived not long after the Bay Bridge was completed. They were proof that not everyone who came to these parts found rampant success. Poverty waited for them in Oakland. But his father, hardened by life under White oppression, could work. His toil had benefits beyond whatever scarce financial security it provided. By the time Russell entered high school, his mother had died and his father was a steelworker holding everything together.
Shortly after Russell arrived in Oakland, a toddler named Huey Newton made the same journey from Monroe, La. to West Oakland.
Obviously, Russell went on to become a sensational basketball player at the University of San Francisco and the champion of champions with the Boston Celtics. But it wasn’t just his height and athleticism that turned him into a legend. It was the spirit of his generation poured into him. Their relentlessness. Their ingenuity. Their enduring hope for something better. Their bent on community. Their righteous indignation, which tended to spring up and overflowed into action.
As Isabel Wilkerson wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about the Great Migration: “Those millions of people, and what they did, would seep into nearly every realm of American culture, into the words of Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, the plays of Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson, the poetry and music of Langston Hughes and B.B. King, and the latter-day generation of Arrested Development and Tupac Shakur.”
Add to that the character of Bill Russell, who became a lion of his time by embodying the tenets of a people. A people who got fed up enough to leave the only land they knew. Who were selfless enough to brave the journey first before sending for their loved ones.
And Russell won. He won like no one else. Oh, the overt and subliminal message that sends to people who know so much about loss. One of our own couldn’t be defeated.
In basketball parlance, Russell is often overlooked. His greatness gets lost in the quality of the footage of his highlights. His era is diminished by the evolution of the sport and recency bias. But that’s just fine because Russell doesn’t belong in sports debates. His honor transcends entertainment. His impact on history is of much greater importance, and much more connected to social progress and the perennial fight for it. He is the flex of a generation that changed the nation, of a movement to which we owe so much.
Many of the same areas boosted by the energy and capability that came with the influx of Black people were also disintegrated by a steady attack of policy and poverty. And when a dark cloud of struggle hangs over a neighborhood, those who make it from there shine like rays of sunlight. You take pride in their success. You get hope from their ability to overcome. You get your fight from their wins.
By the time my generation came around, we had new names to idolize. Rickey Henderson and Gary Payton. En Vogue and MC Hammer. But the culture made sure you also knew of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and Curt Flood. And, of course, Bill Russell.
Every Black neighborhood has these figures. The tentacles of The Great Migration reached all over this nation. But Russell was large enough for all corners of the nation to see. His feet firmly on the soil, where the struggle was happening. His ‘fro reaching the clouds, where lofty dreams take form. Russell was indeed a monument.
Monuments aren’t exclusively for the honor of their likeness. But as a way of immortalizing what they meant. And Russell has always represented something greater than basketball. His life, his career, his accomplishments, his passion, his impact, his stature, were all symbolic of an era that birthed what now exists. An era that breathed into the future by making a bet and staking everything on it. That Black people could win.
And nobody won like Russell.
(Top photo: David Dow / NBAE via Getty Images)