The past three years have been tough for everyone, but for sports fans we have lost two of the all-time greats: Henry Aaron (2021) and Bill Russell (2022).  While they played in different sports, they have given all of us a vital life lesson: respect.

Both Henry Aaron and Bill Russell gained our respect by not only their athletic excellence, but by the way they lived their lives.  Bill Russell was born in Louisiana and experienced extreme racism.  His father was threatened with a shotgun for trying to leave a gas station which was serving white customers first.  His mother was threatened by a policeman for wearing white women’s clothing.

He did not receive a scholarship offer to play basketball until he was offered one from the University of San Francisco (USF).  He led USF to two National Championships.  When his college career was over, he was drafted by the Boston Celtics to fill a need for defense and rebounding.

As with USF, Bill became a dominant player.  The Celtics won 11 Championships in 13 years he was with the team.  For two of those Championships, he was both player and coach.  For his career, he averaged 22.5 rebounds per game (10 is considered an outstanding performance).  That’s an accomplishment to respect.

In spite of all of his success, the police still followed him when he returned to his home.  He was a fighter for social justice.  The FBI kept a file on him, because they thought he was an “arrogant Negro”.  He supported Muhammed Ali in his struggles.  He would not sign autographs because he didn’t want to be a role model in a country that didn’t accept him.  Instead of signing his name, he invited those asking to join him in a discussion.  That’s a sign of respect.

In six of the eleven Championships, Bill Russell defeated the LA Lakers.  Jerry West, the star of the Lakers, is quoted as saying “Bill was not my rival.  Bill was my friend.”  When they sat together in the Lakers’ arena after their careers were over, the crowd would give them a standing ovation when the camera showed them on the overhead screen.  That’s a sign of respect.

Bill Russell was known to stand at midcourt waiting for the other team to come down the court.  Just standing there, he made his presence felt.  His presence as a dominant athlete and fighter for social justice is still being felt today.  That’s a sign of respect.

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“My friendship with him was such that it’s almost like I played with him.  He went through so much and handled it so quietly.  I admired him so much as a human being.” Jerry West

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