Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the greatest basketball players to grace this earth and is also held in high regard for his impact off the court as a civil rights activist. But before him, there was Bill Russell.
Russell, a giant in the sport whose 11 NBA titles are unmatched, marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and stood in support of Muhammad Ali when he refused to serve in the Vietnam war.
And as a prominent Black athlete for the Boston Celtics in the 1960s, Russell left a profounding impact on society — something recognized by President Barrack Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
When Russell died on Sunday at the age of 88, Abdul-Jabbar, whose NBA career began the season after Russell retired, released a statement honouring his “idol” and “mentor,” calling him “the quintessential big man — not because of his height, but because of the size of his heart.”
And on Monday, Abdul-Jabbar shared memories of their relationship in an essay titled “The Bill Russell I Knew for 60 Years,” which can be read on his substack here.
Below are some of the best moments from Abdul-Jabbar’s tribute:
“I’m not getting up just to meet some kid”
The first time Abdul-Jabbar met Russell he was only 14. The Celtics were on the road and practising on his high school court because it was near Madison Square Garden in New York, where Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) grew up.
When his coach, Jack Donahue, and legendary Celtics bench boss Red Auerbach arranged for Abdul-Jabbar to meet his idol, Russell was sitting on the bench, disinteresting in paying any mind to a young Abdul-Jabbar.
“Bill Russell dipped down his newspaper and looked me over with a frown. Then he snorted. ‘I’m not getting up just to meet some kid.’
I shrank to about six inches tall. I just wanted to run straight home.
Auerbach chuckled. ‘Don’t let him get to you, kid. Sometimes he can be a real sourpuss.’ He grabbed my wrist and walked me over to Russell.
‘Bill, be nice. This is the kid who just might be the next you.’
Bill looked at me again, this time taking a little longer. I was already 7’, two inches taller than him.
I stuck out my hand. ‘How do you do, Mr. Russell. Pleasure to meet you.’
He didn’t smile, but his demeanor had softened, just a little. He shook my hand. ‘Yeah, yeah, kid.’
That’s how I met my childhood hero.”
Bill inspired Kareem to be great — on and off the court
While the great Wilt Chamberlain was winning scoring titles, Russell was busy winning championships.
Russell only averaged 15 points per game in his career — a number far lower than most would associate with all-time great status. But Russell was the ultimate team player, he put winning far ahead of personal achievement, and used his six-foot-10 frame to rebound and defend. Something Abdul-Jabbar, a big man himself, studied “like Oppenheimer studied Einstein.”
“I attended his games whenever the Celtics played the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and I would watch them four to five years when they practiced at my school gym. I learned how to dominate in the paint by applying defensive pressure. If you can deny the opponent any rebounds it’s easy to have a fastbreak game. If you can effectively block their shots, you force them to adjust their game into an offense their not as familiar with. Watching him, I realized that Bill seemed to know what each player was going to do before they did. He anticipated their move like a chess master, than sprang into the air to block them before they knew what was happening. He didn’t play one-size-fits-all defense, he customized his defense to fit each player.
Those were the Teachings of Bill Russell, whether or not he knew it. And I learned his teachings well.”
Years later, and at this point Russell had warmed up to him, Abdul-Jabbar was invited to the “Cleveland Summit,” also known as the Muhammad Ali Summit, where several black athletes were “tasked with determining the sincerity of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted by the U.S. Army based on his religious views as a Muslim,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote, noting that several members did not favour Ali’s stance.
Also there was Russell, who implored the athletes to listen and be open to what Ali said, something that left a lasting mark on Abdul-Jabbar.
“The Bill Russell of the Cleveland Summit was who I wanted to be when I grew up. In fact, the Bill Russell of the Cleveland Summit made me grow up right then and there. As I had emulated him on the court, I chose to also emulate him off the court. I read interviews with him and I read his 1966 autobiography Go Up for Glory about his experiences growing up in segregated America and the obstacles he faced as a Black man in America, despite his fame and accomplishments. What especially struck home was his refusal to become the stereotypical Angry Black Man that many tried to force him to be. Instead, he chose to focus on finding a path to change and social justice through specific actions and programs.
Years later when some in the press tried to characterize me as the Angry Black Man, I tried to follow Bill’s rational example to remain calm and join the fight by championing specific solutions rather than just rage and shake my fist. Although, sometimes the frustrations call for a good fist-shaking. Then, as Bill taught me, it’s back to doing the hard work that actually brings change.”
Can I get your autograph?
Despite building a strong relationship over decades, it took Abdul-Jabbar 53 years of knowing Russell to muster the courage to ask for an autograph.
It came during a commercial shoot with other NBA greats, where they “all had so much fun.” So when they took a break, Abdul-Jabbar knew he had a good opportunity.
“‘Hey, Bill,’ I said. ‘Wonder if you’d do me a favor.‘
He just looked at me. ‘Hmmm.‘
I whipped out the jersey from behind my back. His home jersey from the Celtics. Number 6. I held up a black Sharpie. ‘Mind autographing this for me?‘
He gave me a long look, took the jersey and Sharpie, signed it, handed it back.
‘Thanks,’ I said.
‘Sure, kid,’ he said. He had continued to call me kid since our first meeting when I was fourteen. I think that was his good-natured way of reminding me that he was there first and I would always be following in his giant steps.
And that was just fine with me.“