Jerry West: Bill Russell a difference maker like Jackie Robinson

Los Angeles booed him. Los Angeles mocked him. Los Angeles hated him.

But my goodness, how much Los Angeles respected him.

As a player, Bill Russell was the 6-foot-10 jab through the heart of the Lakers and led the Boston Celtics to seven NBA Finals wins over the franchise, the single greatest enemy in their history.

As a person, however, he was far more effective, spending his life fighting racism, fighting for justice, and participating in battles far larger than a basketball game.

In his later years, on his occasional visits to what was then the Staples Center, Russell received a most unique response when shown on the video board.

Standing ovations.

It was the only time a Boston Celtic had been cheered on on the Lakers’ home court, but Bill Russell was so big, strong and enduring.

His death Sunday at the age of 88 leaves a legacy to the basketball world that cannot be replaced.

“One of our darker days,” Jerry West said in a phone interview Sunday. “He was one of those unique people who come along as a differentiator when a differentiator is needed.”

In most polls, Russell is the 6th best player in NBA history, but most polls are insane as nobody has been a bigger influence, nobody has overcome bigger fights and nobody has been a bigger champion.

Lakers legend Jerry West chats with Celtics legend Bill Russell alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Lakers legend Jerry West (center) chats with Celtics legend Bill Russell (right) while seated next to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time top scorer, during the 2018 NBA All-Star Game at Staples Center .

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

His 11 NBA titles make him the most decorated American athlete in the history of major professional sports. His countless blocked shots and career average of 22.5 rebounds – Remember this number! — makes him arguably the greatest defenseman in NBA history.

Far more important than all of that was a social activism that will forever make him the basketball mirror image of another pioneer.

“In every generation, people make a difference not only with their game but also with their personality,” West said. “Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson were in the same class.”

You’d think West and Russell would be sworn enemies considering Russell’s Celtics beat West’s Lakers in six of those finals. One would be wrong.

“Bill wasn’t my rival,” West said. “Bill was my friend.”

The two men frequently sat together at NBA events where they laughed, shared wisdom and respect.

“My friendship with him was such that it’s almost like I played With him instead of against him,” West said. “He’s been through so much and handled it all so calmly. I admired him so much as a person.”

The Lakers legend still has a framed complimentary quote from Russell hanging in his bathroom, a statement that the highest honor is the admiration of one’s peers.

“I look at it every day and it’s going to be there forever,” West said.

By leading the Celtics to those 11 championships in 13 seasons from 1957 to 1969, Russell became the NBA’s first black superstar, but he paid the price.

He’s never been embraced like the Celtics’ white stars like Bob Cousy and John Havlicek. His home in a Boston suburb was once ransacked and defaced with spray-painted racial slurs after he was honored there.

“There is a poisoned atmosphere over this city,” he once said. “It’s an atmosphere of hate, distrust and ignorance.”

He refused to sign autographs because he didn’t want to be a role model for a society that didn’t accept him, and he once led his teammates to boycott an exhibition game when their Kentucky hotel refused service to the black players. So the FBI opened a file on him, calling him “an arrogant Negro.”

In 1966, while still playing, he was also named Celtics coach, becoming the first black coach of a team in a major US sport. Still, the police regularly tailed him as he drove through his suburban Boston neighborhood.

“You look at everything he went through as a black man in Boston and you think if he didn’t have great success, how would he be treated?” West said.

Russell also felt that the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts was a racist institution, so he didn’t show up for the ceremony when he became the first black player to be inducted in 1975.

“I don’t care if I ever go to Boston again,” he once said.

But he responded with more than anger, he responded with action. Long before LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick, Russell risked his career to fight for social justice. He spoke out for Muhammad Ali’s stance against the draft, ran clinics in Mississippi after the assassination of Medgar Evers, and was the first NBA player to run clinics in Africa.

“He was born for those moments,” West said. “In some ways what he did off the pitch was bigger than what he did on the pitch.”

His playing career ended when the Celtics defeated the Lakers in the 1969 Finals, but his impact on sports and society lingered for the rest of his life, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

“But through all that winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle has enlightened his life,” his family said in a statement Sunday, adding later, “Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving frankness that he intended would upset the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never humble in intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness, and thoughtful change.”

Jerry West will remember a single image – Russell in the middle of one of their classic clashes.

“There’s a photo where he’s standing in the middle of the court, hands on hips, looking very majestic, looking over his fiefdom,” West said. “He had a real presence. I’ll never forget it.”

As the sports world continues its fight for justice and equality, Bill Russell stands still. Jerry West: Bill Russell a difference maker like Jackie Robinson

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