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Honoring a valued presence

Current Celtic stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce greet Celtic legend Bill Russell. Current Celtic stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce greet Celtic legend Bill Russell. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
By Marc J. Spears
February 16, 2009
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PHOENIX - As special as the 2008 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award was and still is for Paul Pierce, it would have had an even stronger meaning if the league named it after a Celtics legend a year earlier.

The NBA announced Saturday that the Finals MVP trophy will be named after Hall of Famer Bill Russell, who never won the award since it didn't come into existence until 1969, his last season. When the Celtics won their first NBA title in 22 years last season, Pierce was honored with the Finals MVP award. But unfortunately for the All-Star, his trophy will be the last that doesn't have the Celtics' greatest star's name connected to it.

"When I saw him at the press conference, I said, 'I thought it would be nice to win the Bill Russell award,' " said Pierce, who had 18 points in the East's loss to the West last night. "I think it's great for a guy that has done so much for the game of basketball to be honored with such a prestigious award. It is such a long time coming because this guy is such an ambassador of the game and has done so much for the game. It's great for the game of basketball to have Bill Russell's name on such an award."

Said Boston All-Star Ray Allen, "It's a great honor because we know it's going to outlast him. It's a great legacy to be left to the league."

In an All-Star weekend highlighted by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and the Celtics' "Big Three" among others, and a great dunk contest, Russell was a big part of the show.

After telling Russell just 15 minutes beforehand, NBA commissioner David Stern made the announcement of the Finals MVP honor during his annual news conference. Russell, whose wife, Marilyn, recently passed away, was understandably emotional during the announcement. The NBA also gave the first Finals MVP trophy to the greatest defender in league history.

"Had our timing been better, there is no doubt that Bill would have won the Finals MVP award several times, but we're delighted that we can honor him in this way," Stern said. "Bill inspired a generation not just of basketball fans but Americans everywhere. He is respected by colleagues, coaches, fans, and his legacy clearly has stood the test of time.

"We know that Bill has recently lost his wife, Marilyn, who was a great friend of the NBA. I'm delighted to be able to tell you that we shared it with Marilyn before she died and she didn't tell Bill."

Said Russell, "This is a bittersweet award. I just lost my special partner, but I wanted to thank my teammates because we played a team game quite well, and I accept this for my team, and my team included our coach, Red Auerbach, and all my teammates over the years."

Celtic All-Stars Pierce, Allen, and Kevin Garnett paid homage to the 11-time champion before the game by hugging him while also enjoying a laugh. And during a timeout with 3:16 left in the second quarter at US Airways Center, Pierce, Garnett, and Allen surprised Russell by wheeling out a giant 75th birthday cake to him courtside by the East bench while Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" song played. Soon after, NBA officials brought Russell a piece of cake for him to enjoy. This All-Star Game definitely seemed to lift Russell's spirits.

"We just said happy birthday to him," Allen said. "I know his birthday was [last Thursday]. It's great to celebrate it in front of so many people. You know, Bill will say one thing to you and laugh. And whatever he said might not be really that funny. But after he laughs, everybody starts laughing just for the fact that his laugh is so contagious. He's always warm and fuzzy to be around when he laughs."

While the Lakers, Cavaliers, and Spurs beg to differ, the Celtics seem to have just as much of a chance to win the NBA title as a year ago. Remember how emotional Pierce was when John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, and several other Celtics legends handed him the Larry O'Brien Trophy during the ring ceremony in the season opener? Well, the Celtics might have to get a box of tissues ready for a potentially even more emotional Pierce or Allen or Garnett if the Celtics not only win an 18th championship but if one of their stars can be handed the first Bill Russell MVP trophy from Russell himself.

"It would be a great honor, man, to get an award with Bill's name on it," Pierce said. "Now that there is a Celtics name on it, that would be great."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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