News 08.02.22

Remembering Bill Russell

A great soul has passed, but his legacy, thankfully, is very much alive.

By Barry Scheck

Former NBA player Bill Russell waves to the crowd during the NBA All Star basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, in New Orleans. (Image: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

It is a good sign for our country that the outpouring of affection and admiration for Bill Russell emphasizes his crucial role in the civil rights movement as much as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s undeniably accurate assessment that “Bill Russell was the greatest champion in all of team sports.” He was a courageous leader who put team first in his profession and in his role as an activist. One of the most profound, thoughtful, and impressive books I have ever read is his autobiography, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, co-authored by the great Taylor Branch, who won the National Book Award for Parting of the Waters — the first volume of his trilogy on Dr. King and Civil Rights movement. It more than stands up in this 2022, post-George Floyd era as an instructive must-read. It is an insightful, shockingly candid, and very personal exploration of racism and “success” in America. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print. Used copies are selling now on Amazon and Apple for hundreds of dollars. In my view, it should be digitized and made available to a new generation immediately! 

The Innocence Project and Innocence Network has been extraordinarily fortunate to have a close relationship with the NBA Coaches Association and the NBA. Bill Russell — let’s not forget — was the first Black coach in the NBA and won championships. As is evident from the amazing out pouring of testimonials, his influence on the NBA becoming the most progressive, anti-racist league in American sports was profound. I was lucky enough to see why up close and personal.

In the summer of 2008, I had the extraordinary opportunity to spend a weekend at a conference in Hawaii with Bill and his wife Marilyn when Bill was being inducted into the American Academy of Achievement. Since he could tell I was a huge fan and read Second Wind, he was extremely generous with his time at dinners and events. He answered all of my questions, many of them totally impertinent. His stories were spell-binding and hilarious (a number of them appeared later in Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend, a book that is still in print). He provided wonderfully personal counsel and encouragement to a stranger that I treasure to this day. His eight-minute induction speech was poetic. 

A great soul has passed, but his legacy, thankfully, is very much alive.         

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