A Unique Recognition for a Unique Man

Yesterday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that, as the MLB did with Jackie Robinson and the NHL with Wayne Gretzky, the number 6 will be retired league wide in honor of NBA Legend and 11-time NBA Champion, Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell, following his passing last month. To say this was the right call doesn’t fully describe how right the NBA got it here. And the general public has only started paying close attention to his greatness in light of his passing, which makes the permanent reminder of a league-wide jersey retirement all the more powerful.

Bill Russell’s legacy as a player is at once simple and extraordinary. On the court, he is remembered as likely the greatest rebounder the game has ever seen, with only his good friend and eternal rival Wilt Chamberlain as competition. However, his 11 career championships in 13 seasons (the last two were as a player-coach) are perhaps his greatest achievement on the court. 

However, it was his status as a black man in Jim Crow-era America that elevated him from simple basketball player to civil rights icon and one of history’s most important cultural figures, even if the man himself would have downplayed the importance of his role. What he didn’t downplay was the importance of what he fought for: racial integration in the NBA, other sports leagues, and society in general.

In the 21st Century, the number of people who remember seeing Bill Russell actively play in the NBA is dwindling every year, but simply watching his highlights is enough to give an idea of how truly dominant of a player he was. However, his more important legacy will always be how he endured and combated the intense racism of his time in a city not renowned for its tolerance. Not only that, but how he used his struggle to help enact change not only in sport, but across the nation. If you’re wondering about how he’ll be remembered, listen to President Barack Obama talk about him before presenting him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S.

So, making this choice is definitely the right call by Adam Silver because it will keep Russell and his indomitable legacy in the zeitgeist as long as the NBA is around. And that would mean more to him than any championship he ever won.

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