Remembering Bill Russell requires us to think deeply about basketball … and each other

"I have long maintained that it is more important to understand than to be understood."

Bill Russell
Bill Russell died on Sunday at 88. AP Photo, File

Many years after Bill Russell retired from basketball, the longtime Celtics great was asked why he didn’t enjoy doing television broadcasting.

It was a reasonable question. After all, Russell never averaged 20 points per game for an entire season, but he still finished his illustrious career with more championship rings than he had fingers. Even his bitter rivals — beaten over and over again by Russell’s Celtics — talked openly about how intimidating they found him on the court. Perhaps most impressive: He managed to play and coach his teammates to two NBA championships.

Clearly, Russell had the insight to teach the game. So why didn’t he want to do it on television in front of millions of people watching?


“The most successful television is done in eight-second thoughts,” Russell said at the time. “The things I know about basketball, motivation and people go deeper than that.”

Russell’s thoughts on basketball didn’t fit into a broadcast. Still, as we remember Russell — who passed away Sunday at 88 — the temptation to turn his thoughts into soundbites is almost irresistible. He was brilliant. His thoughts were funny, insightful, and catchy like a song that you can’t get out of your head.

In 2001, as part of a forum on USA Today, Russell was asked for his motivational tricks.

“First of all, never use a trick,” Russell wrote. “Tricks can’t sustain you very long. Think about fundamentals.”

Another commenter asked him how successful people stay focused and motivated.

“It is like the old Alcoholics Anonymous creed: one day at a time,” Russell wrote. “If you look to the future too much, you don’t have a past. Try to make good decisions each day. Every win streak starts with one single win. The rest come one at a time.”

Russell was a masterful basketball player and a brilliant motivator, but his most important work was his activism. In 2020, after George Floyd was murdered, Russell penned an op-ed for Slam Magazine about what he learned in his lifelong fight against racism.


“First, that you must make the price of injustice too high to pay,” Russell wrote. “And second, that such events are not reflective of your character, but of the character of the perpetrator.”

Here, we should note that “you must make the price of injustice too high to pay” is a powerful rallying call for anyone who cares about equality and justice.

But it’s also worth teasing out specifically what Russell was writing about, since — again — soundbites don’t do him justice. When he wrote his 2,000-word op-ed for Slam, aggregation sites focused their headlines on the juicy quotes. Russell noted that during his time in Boston, fans would hurl ugly, racist insults at him. The internet aggregation machine — which never stops churning — filtered that content gold out of Russell’s writing.

What those aggregation sites missed was Russell’s entire point. He wrote unflinchingly about how he learned to combat racism as a youngster. His grandfather once went to buy lumber to build a schoolhouse. A white man refused to sell Russell’s grandfather the wood and then refused to give him his money back.

“My grandfather wasn’t going to accept that,” Russell wrote. “He said, ‘Well, if you aren’t going to give us the lumber and you aren’t going to give us our money back, then I suppose the third option is that I’m going to have to kill you,’ and he went to get his shotgun. Well, the guy at the lumberyard changed his mind pretty quickly after that and decided to go ahead and give them the lumber.”


Russell experienced naked, ugly racism in Boston, certainly. But his point was deeper than that. Russell learned to value himself even in the face of racism from a young age. He knew that his parents loved him, and if they loved him, then he had value. Even though he experienced unprecedented success as he got older, he knew his success alone could not protect his children from white supremacy.

“All I could do was try to instill in them the love and pride my parents instilled in me and hope it would be enough,” Russell wrote.

If you’ll let him, Russell makes you think deeply about racism and what it truly takes to fix it.

“Racism cannot just be shaken out of the fabric of society because, like dust from a rug, it dissipates into the air for a bit and then settles right back where it was, growing thicker with time,” Russell wrote. “Police reform is a start, but it is not enough.

“We need to dismantle broken systems and start over. We need to make our voices heard, through multiple organizations, using many different tactics. We need to demand that America gets a new rug.”

If you’ll let him, Russell makes you think deeply about life. In 1955, a white center won Player of the Year in Northern California even though Russell led his team to a 28-1 season and a championship. Russell later said he knew that if he let those judges define him, he would die “a bitter old man.”


“I have long maintained that it is more important to understand than to be understood,” Russell wrote.

Few can claim to have understood life better than Russell, and even fewer can claim to have understood Russell himself fully — we certainly can’t make that claim here.

If you’ll let him, Russell makes you think more deeply about basketball than Twitter and TV allow. Twitter keeps you scrolling, replacing your own thoughts and insights with the thoughts and insights of others. TV broadcasts do their best to show highlights but can’t capture the totality of a game in real-time while still breaking to advertise Toyotas and Swiffer Wet Jets.

As such, TV broadcasts are not well-equipped to explain the details that make a basketball player successful. Russell, meanwhile, was once asked how to be a great rebounder.

“It is a learned skill,” Russell wrote. “You work on it and give attention to it. Just as important, once you learn it, you continue to work on it and improve, and try new things. It is not all about being tall either, that’s a misconception. Remember, ninety percent of all rebounds are gathered below the rim. It is all about position, timing, strong hands. Work on strengthening your hands. You have to be able to jump, of course, but that is not all.”

As we remember Russell — a great man who thought deeply about the world and basketball and the inequalities that still plague us 53 years after his final NBA game — we owe it to him to sit with the things he said. Contemplate about what it means to dismantle broken systems and start over. Remind yourself that you must make the price of injustice too high to pay.


Remember what Russell said on a deeper level, not in eight-second television clips or 240-character tweets.

After all, the things Russell knew about basketball, motivation, and people go much, much deeper than that.

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