Bill Russell never flapped his gums idly. Instead, if you listened to both the words and those moments in which he chose not to speak, you’d learn something.
Russell is often asked about his reaction to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he will receive from President Obama on Tuesday, …
Is this the greatest personal honor in his life?
“A close second,” Russell replied.
Umm, what’s first? The tentativeness of the question elicited the familiar whooping roar of laughter occasionally emitted by this publicly serious man.
“When he was about 77, my father and I were talking,” Russell answered. “And he said: ‘You know, you’re all grown up now, and I want to tell you something. You know, I am very proud of the way you turned out as my son, and I’m proud of you as a father.’
“My father is my hero, O.K., and I cannot perceive of anything topping that,” Russell continued, his voice becoming husky. This being the mature Bill Russell, born on Lincoln’s birthday in 1934, he saw fit to add, “While I am very, very flattered by this honor.”
On the nth day in a row on which stories confirm terrible setbacks for most of us in our long-running class war, let’s remember some heroes for the good guys. Bill Russell was surely one of them.
Go read the whole piece (and the SI profile that the NYTimes linked to in the quote above). It’s worth remembering, as Russel does, both from whence he and we have come:
Russell was born in West Monroe, La.; his parents knew people who had been born slaves. Once his mother made a handsome suit for herself, and police officers told her not to wear “white women’s clothes,” [Russel’s daughter] Karen Russell said.
“Black people had to wait in line at a drugstore or gas station, and white people went first,” she continued. “One day, my grandfather tried to pull away from a gas line, and the owner pulled a shotgun and said, ‘Boy, you’re going to buy your gas from me.’ ”
And how far we have come, notwithstanding how much, much farther we have to go:
And what does he, the country’s first black professional coach, think about receiving a medal from its first black president? …
“Well, you know, I know him for a while, long before he was president,” Russell said. “And the last time I talked to him, I said, I am very proud of him, not because he is the first black president, but ‘because you’re an intelligent, competent politician and you arrived at the top of your profession, and so, I’m proud of you for your accomplishments as a man.’ ”
Bill Russell (in what is not intended as an epitaph): Si monumentum requiris, circumspice...which may be translated as “If you seek his monument, look around you.”
Image: Francisco de Goya, Retrato del Duque de San Carlos, 1815.