Full-Court Fighter

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Jason Johnson: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. The NBA and the world lost one of its greatest stars last week. Bill Russell, the former Boston Celtics player and coach, died on Sunday at the age of 88. Russell’s career in the NBA included an on matched run of championships as a player and a coach. But his legacy off the court as a tireless voice for civil rights was even more impressive honoring the late Bill Russell. Coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson.

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Jason Johnson: The NBA lost one of its greatest stars last week. Bill Russell, the former Boston Celtics player and coach, died on Sunday at the age of 88. On the court, Bill Russell was a superstar, winning an unmatched 11 championship rings. Five Most Valuable Player awards and 12 appearances in the All-Star Game. In 1966, he made history as the first black coach, not just in the NBA, but in any major sports league. Off the court, Russell became an important voice in the fight for civil rights, refusing to stay silent about the racist abuse black players suffered at the hands of the public, the press, and even the fans of the teams that they played for. He fought back with words and actions, speaking out when there was a lot more at stake than the loss of an endorsement deal. That’s something President Obama recognized in 2011 when he honored Russell with the Medal of Freedom. Here’s a clip.

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Speaker 2: More than any athlete of his era, Bill Russell came to define the word winner. And yet, whenever someone looks up at all six, nine of Bill Russell, I just did. I always feel small next door and asks, Are you a basketball player? Surprisingly, he gets this more than you think. Discretion. He says, no. He says, That’s what I do. That’s not what I am. I’m not a basketball player. I am a man who plays basketball.

Speaker 2: Bill Russell, the man is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men. He marched with King. He stood by Ali when a restaurant refused to serve the black Celtics. He refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates teammates who he loved better players and made possible the success of so many who would follow. And I hope that one day in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell, the player, but Bill Russell, the man.

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Jason Johnson: Joining us to talk about the life and legacy of Bill Russell is veteran sportswriter and commentator Howard Bryant. He’s also the author of Full Dissidence Notes from an Uneven Playing Field. Howard Bryant, welcome back to a Word.

Speaker 3: It’s good to see you again, Jason.

Jason Johnson: So how. I want to start with this. There are certain athletes that mean things to certain people. I know there are folks who love Muhammad Ali. I know there are people who, you know, look at Arthur Ashe as as more than an athlete, as a sportswriter and a person. What did Bill Russell mean to you?

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Speaker 3: Well, I think what Bill Russell meant to me more than anything else was I think we protect our time. And that’s that’s a theme that I’ve really concentrated on, is that if you when you grow up in a place, the context of that place has some value to you beyond the numbers, beyond the rankings of who was better and who wasn’t.

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Speaker 3: And and I think that era of players, specifically, when you’re looking at the civil rights, Jim Crow level of athlete, that time period from Jackie Robinson going into the 1970s, they are a special group. They are the first real generation of black professionals of all industries.

Speaker 3: When you think about it, and I’ve always said that the black athlete is the the, you know, the most influential and most important and most visible black employees this country’s ever produced. And when you think about the civil rights movement, sure, you think about MLK and Abernathy and everybody else from the movement and Rosa Parks, all of them that everybody.

Speaker 3: But adding to that adding to that movement is also employment and the next stages beyond the actual movement of protest. But who actually gets to have a life here? And those athletes were the first ones who had to combine their profession at such a high visible level with making sure that they were respected as people. And Bill Russell was the guy who really just embodied that in terms of, okay, I’m going to have pieces of this American dream. But at the same time, don’t forget me and don’t forget who I am. And don’t think that because I get these special things that so many other people don’t get, that I’m not cognizant of what’s taking place around me and I’m going to make sure I don’t separate those two.

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Jason Johnson: I think for a lot of us, even someone like myself who was a basketball fan, you may hear a bit about Bill Russell, the activist, and he’s got the 11 championships. But Bill Russell, the actual player, as you were talking about, sort of professional, is not something that a lot of us have had a chance to see. Tell me a little bit about him as a player like, you know, what? What did he innovate? How did he play on the court? Is there a modern day version or was there a version of him maybe in the eighties or nineties, that sort of eighties style of play?

Speaker 3: Well, these are the hard parts. And I think that basketball is one of the most difficult sports, because when we look at the types of players that you see in baseball that break records and do amazing things, we don’t look at them going, well, you know, Babe Ruth wasn’t that good after all. We don’t really do that. We don’t do that to other sports. We don’t go back and look at Bobby Orr and go, Oh, well, he really wasn’t that good basketball. We do it all the time. And I think it’s because of the evolution of the sport and it’s also because of the speed of the sport.

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Speaker 3: And you look at how much and maybe no other sport, maybe is has been as dramatic. But there’s something about basketball where we always continue to try and diminish the early roots of the game. And Russell is the innovator. He’s the first black superstar in the game. There are other black players who came before us, Sweetwater, Clifton, you know, Chuck Cooper was a you know, those guys, Don Barksdale came in. But the first black superstar face of franchise champion who changed the way the game was played, who made it an aerial game, who made it a defensive game?

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Speaker 3: When you’re thinking about the centers, go back and look at the old black and whites and go look at a center. He was the big plodding guy who was nailed to the floor, the big, pudgy guy who was taking up space. But now Bill Russell comes in. He looks like he’s a sprinter and a hurdler and a high jumper all at once. He creates the modern aerial game.

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Speaker 3: And if you’re looking at the comps to today, look at the way Dennis Rodman played defense, look at the way Rudy Gobert plays defense, look at the way they’re blocking shots, look at the way Giannis is blocking shots that they’re covering. The Celtics used to say that they used to play the hey build defense, which was when one of their guys got beat up off the dribble. They would just yell, Hey, Bill and.

Jason Johnson: Go and.

Speaker 3: Leave his man and essentially cover two guys. And we’ve seen players do that routinely. Now, imagine having one guy in the sport do that when nobody else could do it. Then two years later, Chamberlain comes. And then Elgin Baylor comes. And now you’re starting to see the evolution of the sport. But that starts with Bill Russell. And to this day, there are very few guys that you can look at, and there’s nobody else, in my opinion, that you can look at who led their team to a championship, multiple championships without needing the ball. Everybody else are scorers. Bill Russell starts the fast break. He anchors the defense. He’s running. He’s starting. The outlet passes. He’s he’s intimidating the defense. And if he needs to like he did in in 1962, game seven, he’ll drop 30 points and 40 rebounds. This is the ultimate champion.

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Speaker 3: And the other thing, when we talk about the great glory of the Boston Celtics, it’s also important to remember that Bill Russell. Is the start of a dynasty. The Celtics were a very good team. They were not a great team. They’d never been to the NBA Finals before. Russell. Bob Cousy was the face of the league. He’d never even played for a championship before Russell got there. Bob Cousy won six championships. No championships without Russell. Red Auerbach won nine championships as a coach, considered the greatest coach of all time until Phil Jackson comes along and maybe still is the greatest. He hadn’t won a championship and hadn’t reached a final until Russell got there.

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Speaker 3: Russell comes in as a rookie, wins the NBA championship. They lose the next year in 58 because he twists his ankle. He’s injured. Completely diminished when he comes back for Game six. And they lose. And then they come back and win eight straight championships. I mean, this is the difference maker. And so you want to talk about LeBron going going, reaching eight straight finals. Fine. Russell won eight straight titles.

Jason Johnson: I have to ask this because it always strikes me when you talk about players from that era and their great accomplishments. I think of Jackie Robinson. I think of Muhammad Ali. I think of the absolutely over-the-top, ridiculous levels of racism that they dealt with. Right. Like, you know, a player today, you get some angry tweets and maybe, you know, somebody like vandalize LeBron’s house once a couple of years ago. But. Russell was playing at a time where it was just standard public discourse amongst white people that black folks were inferior from coaches to management to everything else like that, and they were very vocal about it. How did that affect his relationships with his teammates? How did that affect his relationships with the fans? Because they now all praise him. But, you know, a lot of the fathers, brothers and uncles of the people praising him today were calling him the N word back then.

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Speaker 3: Well, they couldn’t stand him. They couldn’t stand Bill Russell, especially in Boston. And you always have to remember, Jason, as we’ve talked about in the past, that the the default was to be grateful. Remember what? I can’t remove the name of the coach, the coach of Wyoming or the black 14 looked at some of the players at Tony McGee when a great lineman for the Patriots back in the seventies looked at those guys when they wanted to protest and they wanted to fight for better conditions, saying, Hey, you know, if you don’t like it, you can always go back to colored relief.

Speaker 3: And so do not forget that the attitude here was that we’re giving you something. And Bill Russell was like, No, you’re not giving me anything. You are entitled to a performance from me. But you were not entitled to anything else. And I’m not going to separate MLK and Birmingham and Selma from you cheering for me, so I’m going to treat you on my terms. I’m not going to play this trope that I’m expected to play. And people could not stand him for that. Because they would say, Why aren’t you happier and why aren’t you getting over it? And why aren’t you accepting the way things are? Because you’re benefiting from the way things are. I mean, you’re not living in the ghetto. You’re making $100,000 a year. What are you complaining about while at the same time calling him the N-word?

Speaker 3: And so and and, you know, somebody vandalized LeBron’s gate. In 1962, vandals broke into Bill Russell’s house and smeared feces all over his wall and defecated in his bed. And then he was expected to go smile for white people and go perform for them without conflict. And so we talk about these things and we don’t talk about them while we’re making our lists about who was great.

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Speaker 3: Now you’re expected to go perform. With that in mind. Knowing that there is a rule in the NBA that you’re not even supposed to put five black players on the court at once. And then they finally do it. And everybody wants to give the Celtics a medal because all they did was put the five best players they had on the court at one time to help win a game. And that’s supposedly some great monument in the civil rights movement. This is what these players were expected to perform within. These are the parameters.

Speaker 3: And so for all of the stuff that Bill Russell did, you always have to remember that he did it within the framework of massive, massive change, massive, massive hostility and anger. While he is winning for them. And so what he did, which I always find so remarkable and I still think it’s his greatest victory, is that he was able. To make that separation between cheering for the player. And understanding what black people were going through. He made that impossible. And that’s why they couldn’t stand him. Because then when they wanted to apologize.

Speaker 3: Later on with the statue and the rest of it, he was like, No, I’m good. And so the question that I’ve always asked myself that I think is a really, really important question is what do you do when someone does not accept your apology? And that’s what Bill Russell did. He was fine. I’m good. You guys figure it out. I’ll show up when I show up.

Speaker 3: I won’t. When I won’t or when I don’t. And this whole moment of reconciliation is between you and you. It doesn’t have anything to do with me. And boy did people. People couldn’t stand that. We’re trying to say we’re sorry, Bill. We’re trying to build a statue for you, Bill. It goes like I’m good. I mean, to Bill.

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Speaker 3: Bob Cousy. Bob Cousy to this day. Had been trying to reconcile with Russell for how he treated him and the fact that Russell that he he didn’t abdicate the throne very quickly, even though he had to recognize that Bill was the better player. And he didn’t support them as much as he wanted to. And then over the years, he tried to reach Russell, and Russell didn’t really want to engage, and he wrote Bill Russell a letter and Russell never responded. I don’t. Who knows? Now, Russell took it to his grave whether he read the letter or not, but he never responded. And then Bob Cousy voted for Donald Trump. So what does that really say about the apology?

Jason Johnson: We’re going to take a short break. We come back more about the great Bill Russell with Howard Bryant. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today, we’re talking about the late Bill Russell with sports journalist and author Howard Bryant. I love this idea. What do you do when. When your apology doesn’t work? Because it occurs to me that. You’re only going to have that attitude as a person, let alone as a player if you if you have sort of a certain life philosophy in general. Right. And so, you know, Bill Russell sat down for this interview for the Civil Rights History Project in 2013. It was this long ranging conversation and discussion with historian Taylor Branch. And in the beginning where Russell was explaining his life and his philosophy, he says to follow.

Speaker 2: I never work to be liked because that would be hypocritical to me if I wanted to do things to make somebody like me. What is it worth?

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Jason Johnson: The key thing here is he’s like, Look, I never work to be like he didn’t he didn’t have to give a crap about apologies or making yourself look good. I wonder, where do you think that came from? Because he brought that attitude to basketball. So what was it in his background? What was it in his upbringing that gave him that bad Negro attitude that, you know, that some of us may embrace today, but it’s easier today? Where do you think that came from in his life?

Speaker 3: No, it comes from the family, comes from his upbringing. It comes from it comes from Monroe, Louisiana. He grows up in Monroe. And the gap between black and white is so enormous, the lack of dignity, the lack of concern, the lack of regard, the stories of his father and being humiliated even by people, by white people that considered that they were considered friendly with. At the end of the day, at the end of the day, there was a line there. And whenever that line was revealed, then the anger comes that you do believe you’re better than I am. And that the price of me challenging this could be my life.

Speaker 3: Now, I’m not going to go with this. You have to remember that everything about Bill Russell’s life, all of the great intersections in his life, all the important intersections in his life are directly connected to racism. His family lives in Monroe, Louisiana. They leave because of the conditions in Louisiana, the racial conditions in Louisiana. He lives in an Oakland in West Oakland in terrible, terrible ghetto conditions. Only because black people are forced to live in West Oakland, not allowed to live in any other part of the city. He plays for the Boston Celtics, but only because the team that drafted him, Saint Louis, does not want a black player to be there face. And that they know that the city will not accept a black superstar.

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Speaker 3: So the great Bill Russell, who wins Olympic gold for his country in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, is traded to the Celtics for two white players because Saint Louis didn’t want a black player to lead them. They trade him for Ed McCauley and Cliff Hagan, the great Bill Russell. And think about this. And then he goes to Boston and now he’s expected to absolve Boston for all of its histories and all of its difficulties. And that is the thing.

Speaker 3: When you talk about accepting or not accepting the apology, when someone apologizes to you, the expectation should be. I am telling you, regardless of your reaction. That I am sorry for the harm that I caused, but that’s really not what apologies are all about. The apologies are supposed to be. You’re supposed to then hug me. You’re supposed to close the circle. And that’s the piece of the game that Bill Russell was not always willing to play.

Jason Johnson: When it came to his activism. I think there’s there are people who say, oh, okay, he was off the court actions say Muhammad Ali jacket. Talk about off the court activism. What I’m more interested in is what was the catalyst now simply being black and waking up every day at the time in Boston, you were basically an activist, right? Being black and alive, being black and and happy during the American apartheid state made you a bit of an activist. But what was the catalyst? What was the thing that that. Began to change how people perceived of Bill Russell as an activist. Was it? Was there a moment? Was there a speech, a protest, a movement he gave money to that made it official that he was an activist other than simply being an independent black man?

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Speaker 3: No, I. I think that the the start or some of the more. Incendiary moments of the civil rights movement, the school integration in Little Rock, where you have the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, essentially blocking the school doors, you know, keeping, you know, black kids from going to school. The simple fact of going to school is requires National Guard protection. I think I think when you’re looking at some of the other moments of the 1960s, clearly even the Greensboro sit in in 1960, Bill Russell was paying attention to all of these things. And he’s paying attention to all of these things with the backdrop of his own life. Of the fact that the dignity that he felt he was that he had earned had never been afforded him.

Speaker 3: And I think that the I think being an athlete is a really big deal here because you see the juxtaposition. You we always talk about sports needing to be or for American sports needing to be the antidote to racism. Like we all want to believe in the fairness and the meritocracy. If I score six and you score five, unless we’re playing golf, I win. It’s not race. It’s not gender. It’s not height, it’s not weight. It’s none of it. It’s meritocracy. I beat you. Therefore, I get my dignity. And seeing that contradiction in real life that I am the best player on the court.

Speaker 3: I am at the University of San Francisco. I’ve got a 56 game winning streak, and I went to championships. And then I go when the Olympics. And over the course of my career. In winner take all games. I’m 21 and no, I never lose. And yet I am begging you. I am marching. For. To be treated equally to you. I mean, we can talk about all of the different moments that shaped go Russell, but that is the central piece of this, which is Who are you? And I’m in a position. Where I don’t have to play along.

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Speaker 3: And I think that I disagree with you, Jason, when we talk about the idea that just I mean, I agree with you that being black is being an activist just by waking up in the morning, you’re trying to navigate hostile territory. But boy, so many black athletes were very comfortable with, okay, I’ve got good fortune. I know better than to mess with that good fortune. And I’m going to navigate this territory a very different way. I’m not going to do what Bill Russell did. I’m going to play along. Even if I go home and I’m miserable, I’m going to code switch this.

Speaker 3: And Russell was the exact opposite. And I think that maybe there is a comfort level, obviously, with him understanding his own worth and how important he was. But I also think that there are just some special people in this world. I asked this very question of myself all the time with Jackie Robinson. Where did that come from in 1930? To be able to say, I’m going to act. I am going to be that I’m that person. Where did it come from? Sometimes people just have it in them in a way. They’re the special ones, too.

Jason Johnson: There’s this, you know, you think of the song, you know, the lyric. You know, I’m not black, I’m o.J. And how a lot of these these players, both then and now, we’re like and like you said, I have my money. I got my power at this. Any other you know, I I’m not going to risk any of this. And, you know, when you do take those risks, well, again today, the consequence might be an endorsement or being attacked by a racist president, elected official or network.

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Jason Johnson: You know, back then, I mean, Russell had an FBI file. And so like, tell us a little bit about that. Like, eventually, you know, he got access to the file that the FBI had put out about him. What was in that FBI file? Why did the FBI have a file on Bill Russell? I’m sure it wasn’t just keeping his stats. Tell us a little bit about that part of his background.

Speaker 3: Well, Bill Russell had an FBI file because Bill Russell was in the protest. Anybody who went. Anybody who marched. I mean, this is what they do to black people. You were obviously a communist. You were obviously just asking for your own rights or fighting for your own rights. So everybody, Jackie Robinson has an FBI file. James Baldwin has an FBI file. Just by giving a quote that makes you sound subversive, gets you an FBI file. You might have an FBI file. You mean.

Jason Johnson: I do.

Speaker 3: I mean, seriously. And this is and this is 2022 where people say whatever they want. It’s generally, you know, harmless in a lot of ways. People back then. The implication was, was that you were the subversive threat to the government and to the nation. And so not surprising at all that Bill Russell had an FBI file and even the allies, even the ones who were considered the good ones, the Floyd Patterson of the world, I bet they have one, too, simply by being black during that period, wanting to know what they were going to do.

Speaker 3: Could they be trusted to represent or to represent the American view of itself? Right. That things are better than they were before. And I think that when you’re looking at somebody like Russell. That this is this also adds to the hypocrisy. And the hypocrisy of you are cheering me and you’re surveilling me. And so all of these things create demand, right? And I think what I always find really fascinating and admirable and really enjoyable about Russell, just as a figure. Is.

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Speaker 3: Then you look at the next 50 years of his life after he retires. And. So much of it was trying. Was the public trying to reach him? Mm hmm. It’s almost like an example of guilt. We’re trying to say we’re sorry. And. Russell cracked me up the most. Because people would call him bitter and they would wonder why he was so angry and they would constantly call him uppity and all of these things while at the same time. Always talking about his great infectious laugh. Well, how can you be that bitter? And you’re laughing all the time. Right. Because you’re free. That’s him. Because he knows who he is. But he also knows who you are. And it goes back to the great Russell quote where he said, it’s I’ve always thought it was more important to understand than to be understood.

Jason Johnson: We’re going to take a short break. We come back, more on the legacy of basketball legend Bill Russell. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay to. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today, we’re talking about the legacy of basketball star Bill Russell with veteran sports commentator and author Howard Bryant. One of the key moments, Howard, of of Russell’s life is on the day that Mark Luther King Junior was murdered. Russell and his teammates took some time to decide whether or not they were going to play. Right at the time, they decided they were going to play in 2020. You had some NBA players who were saying, hey, we don’t want to play because of George Floyd. You actually had the Milwaukee Bucks not play because of the Blake shooting. You had WNBA players not play. What do we know about Russell’s thoughts on the activism in the NBA? Before he passed, what did he think of what he saw in the league these last two years?

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Speaker 3: Well, I think you could tell that Russell was very proud of it. You saw the photos in the that he posted on social of him taking the knee with his gold medal. I think that a lot of players of that generation, especially guys like Russell, I’m gone. I know this because I talked to John Carlos, Doctor John Carlos about this often talked about it a few weeks ago. They never thought they would see this again.

Jason Johnson: Mm hmm.

Speaker 3: So to see the Miami Heat taking a photo with their hoodies after Trayvon Martin is killed, to see the players take a stand on Ferguson and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland and to see Carmelo Anthony out there leading a march after Freddie Gray killed in Baltimore. These guys didn’t think they were going to see that. They thought that this generation of player was too rich to care. They don’t go to public schools anymore. They’re not part of the community anymore. They’re. They’re not. They’re not beholden to the way. They don’t have to work in the off season. They’re not beholden in the way to the way that the previous players were because they didn’t make that kind of money. So those players had to be citizens. They were much more affected by what was happening. But these guys, I always say that they’re, you know, hiding behind the tinted glass of their Escalades. Right. But to see this now, Bill Russell was really, really proud of that. And the reason how, you know, he was proud of it was because he said.

Jason Johnson: So these players today and, you know, people may have their opinions of Kyrie Irving, but he’s spoken a lot about things. Chris Paul spoken about things. Obviously, LeBron James, who’s sort of dominated the league for 13 or 14 years. What would you say is is the person or persons today who sort of embodies some of the spirit of Bill Russell? They obviously can’t match what he went through. But are there are there a collection of players or a player today who you think sort of OC You know what, Bill Russell would be specifically proud of this person for having that. You know, you can’t break me attitude in addition to the organizing and the sort of activism.

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Speaker 3: That’s a good question, I think. I don’t think there’s any comparisons. I don’t think there’s anybody, because then the needs are different. The story is different. The all of the stakes are different. None of the stakes are nearly as high as they used to be. Right. I think that as a player, you love Kevin Garnett and as a lineage as part of the Celtic lineage as well and a defensive dominating player, I think that is absolutely. Bill Russell and those two were so close at the end anyway. So you can absolutely say that I think that Bill Russell as a collective would be very proud of the of the players and the Carmelo Anthony of the world who were willing to actually say and do something.

Speaker 3: I think the thing with Russell that I always found so admirable was his willingness to be present. He didn’t just write a check. Right. There are there’s photographic evidence of him out in the street with the people. And that’s really valuable. That’s more valuable than money. That’s cutting a cheque and then hanging out, you know, on the 17th floor of your yard, of your tower. Right. That’s not what Bill Russell was all about. And so I think that he was always really proud of seeing action, of seeing physically, putting yourself in within community. And that’s really who he was.

Jason Johnson: I always like to close with something optimistic, hopeful, potentially life changing for people who never knew Bill Russell, for people who are listening to the podcast right now, don’t really know much about sports, but have seen this man’s face sort of plastered over the TV and screens over the last couple of days. What’s probably the most what is one of the most important lessons they can take from his career in life? What’s what’s it an encapsulation of the sort of. Bill Russell 88 years on this planet someone to say, you know, I’m going to put this in my pocket and let this sort of to my brain moving all.

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Speaker 3: The combination. Of being yourself. Of really holding on to your values and your morality. Knowing who you are while at the same time caring about people. That’s a really difficult balance. Most times when you see people who are. Who are that self-absorbed? Usually that self-absorption is a negative. It sounds like a negative. But Russell could do both. Russell was able to clearly convey that he cared about this world and that he cared about people while at the same time recognizing that. He also had to do it in a certain way that was going to make sure he maintained his values as a person and guarantee that you understood and respected him as a person. Very difficult balance and at the end of the day, very few people have been able to do it. But he did.

Jason Johnson: Howard Bryant is a veteran sportswriter and commentator. He’s one of my favorites. He’s the author of several books, including The Heritage Black Athletes A Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism. Thank you so much for joining me today, ma’am.

Speaker 3: No, my pleasure. Thank you.

Jason Johnson: And that’s the word for this week. The show’s e-mail is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Eric Aaron. Alicia montgomery is the vice president of Audio. Our theme music was produced by Don Will Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for work.