Discover more from Marc Stein
The other Bill Russell debate
Set aside your feelings about where Russell lands in the GOAT discussion to ponder this one: Should the NBA retire No. 6 completely like Major League Baseball did with Jackie Robinson's No. 42?
Tyson Chandler had crossed paths with Bill Russell once or twice before, at an All-Star Weekend and on Team USA duty, but Chandler never had the chance to tell the winningest center who ever played the game that he adopted No. 6 entering his sixth NBA season in Russell's honor.
Then Chandler helped the Dallas Mavericks win the first championship in the club's history in June 2011. Russell was there in Miami that night to hand out the NBA Finals MVP trophy, bearing his name for just the third time, to Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki. The bonus was Russell stopping for pictures afterward with some of the Mavericks' grateful first-time champions.
Chandler's triumphant postgame interaction with Russell made the social media rounds Sunday after news of Russell's death at age 88. Chandler himself proudly retweeted the clip in which he informed the legend: "You're the original No. 6. That's the only reason why I wear this number."
"It was perfect timing," Chandler said Monday when I asked him to retell the tale.
The timing might be ideal now to take No. 6 out of circulation completely in Russell's honor. Dan Woike of The Los Angeles Times and Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, two of my former fellow neighbors in the Walt Disney World bubble in Orlando, just wrote columns advocating for something I've been thinking about, too: Perhaps the NBA should retire No. 6 leaguewide in tribute to Russell's peerless winning and off-court impact as an athlete activist, just like Major League Baseball did with Jackie Robinson's No. 42.
Earl Lloyd, Nat Clifton and Charles Cooper, Russell's eventual Celtics teammate, were the first Black players in NBA history — years before Russell's NBA debut in 1956-57. Yet it is Russell who became known as both a pillar in the early NBA establishing itself as a serious league and a player synonymous with confronting ceaseless racism in the city of Boston and beyond. He was committed as deeply to the pursuit of equality throughout the 1960s, alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, as he was to chasing championships.
"In every generation, people make a difference not only with their play, but also with their persona," Lakers great Jerry West told The Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke. "Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson were in that same class."
Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, confirmed as much in 1972 when Robinson died. She asked Russell to be a pallbearer at Jackie Robinson's funeral, explaining to Russell that he was Jackie's favorite athlete.
As Woike noted in his piece, 25 different players representing 20 of the NBA’s 30 teams wore No. 6 last season — including a certain Los Angeles Laker named LeBron James. The NBA, though, could do what baseball did in 1997, when then-commissioner Bud Selig announced that players already wearing No. 42 would be permitted to do so until they stopped playing under the proviso that the number would never be assigned again. New York Yankees relief ace Mariano Rivera, whose Hall of Fame career ended in 2013, was the last major leaguer to wear No. 42 — except on April 15 when every player in the sport wears the number to pay homage to Robinson.
"I understand when people want to retire a number," Chandler said. "If it is anyone, I would clearly say it should be the champion of all champions.
"But I also think it's beautiful to see players like myself wear the number in his honor and try to tap into what we were inspired by while watching him — or in my case studying."
The NBA Finals MVP award has borne Russell's name for the last 14 Finals and he presented the trophy in person until his health no longer made it possible. In June, Russell recorded a video message congratulating Golden State's Stephen Curry when Curry won the trophy for the first time.
Yet is that enough? Doesn't Russell's colossal legacy demand more?
One suspects he wouldn't be nudging NBA commissioner Adam Silver to heed such calls. Such was his contempt for the city he played in that Russell only agreed to the Celtics retiring his No. 6 in a near-empty Boston Garden before a game in March 1972.
Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach, mind you, was determined to hoist it to the Garden rafters whether Russell was on board or not, with Auerbach telling one of my original sportswriting heroes, former Boston Globe stalwart Bud Collins: “His kids and I are gonna do it if Russ won’t, and that’s that.”
Should Silver someday reach that level of determination with Russell’s number, there will ultimately be no protest from Chandler.
"I would selfishly love it if his No. 6 got retired," Chandler said, "because I would look at mine and feel that much more privileged that I got a chance to wear it after him."
The Stein Line is a reader-supported newsletter, with both free and paid subscriptions available, and those who opt for the paid edition are taking an active role in the reporting by providing vital assistance to bolster my independent coverage of the league. Feel free to forward this post to family and friends interested in the NBA and please consider becoming a paid subscriber to have full access to all of my posts.
As a reminder: Tuesday editions, on this and every Newsletter Tuesday, go out free to anyone who signs up, just as my Tuesday pieces did in their New York Times incarnation.
In this pinch-me career, I've enjoyed the tremendous fortune of meeting, interviewing and even regularly covering some of the NBA's stalwarts from the 1970s and '80s whose basketball cards I treasured in my youth and teenage years, never knowing then that I would find a pathway to chronicle #thisleague for the bulk of my adult life.
I must admit, though, that I never had any meaningful interactions with Mr. Russell. He wasn't known as the warmest, to put it charitably, when it came to dealing with press row wretches. And I somehow never wound up an interview setting with him even though Russell had been lured back to the league in an ambassadorial role by then-commissioner David Stern, after a period of estrangement, for the bulk of my writing career.
While I consider myself a decent NBA historian, it really wasn't until the mid-to-late 1970s that I became legitimately aware of pro basketball. I sadly missed pretty much all of the ABA's existence and I definitely missed every dribble of Russell's dominance. He played his last game during the 1969 NBA Finals mere days after I was born.
When it comes to Russell's tales and legacy, then, I tend to lean on my wise elders for their stories, since they can write with so much more depth about Russell's career. These are some of the stories I've found to be the most enlightening since Russell's passing Sunday:
🏀 There is no better Substacker on Earth than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to tell Russell stories after meeting him as a 14-year-old:
🏀 Longtime Sports Illustrated scribe Jack McCallum covered Russell's life as thoroughly as one piece can in this retrospective column.
🏀 The Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke, as mentioned above, caught up with Jerry West after Russell's death and wrote this piece with West's unique perspective after all of the Lakers' battles with the Celtics in the 1960s.
🏀 My former New York Times teammate Harvey Araton began covering the NBA in the 1970s and thus did have a slew of memorable personal interactions with Russell.
🏀 Mike Lupica in The New York Daily News and Mark Whicker, now writing on his own Substack, served up the kind of ace columnist perspective on Russell's on-court achievements and off-court activism that I always aspired to (and still do). Some vintage Whick:
Russell died Sunday at age 88. He retired when he was 34 but he remained basketball’s patriarch until the end. Today’s walking conglomerates sought out Russell, were humbled by his presence, motivated by his approval.
Imagine if they’d seen him play.
🏀 USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt actually is one of my contemporaries and did manage to secure a handful of interviews with Russell over the past decade. Jeff recounts those chats here.
Bonus coverage: Peter Vecsey on the radio telling Russell stories on WFAN in New York, like the one that led to Russell revealing why Rachel Robinson had asked to be a pallbearer at Jackie Robinson’s funeral, plus this picture (please read the caption) that has some unlikely personal connections.
A good summary of some of Russell’s most pertinent statistics … with sadly nothing in the BPG column because blocked shots were not recorded by the NBA as an official statistic until 1973-74 … five seasons after Russell’s retirement.
(PS — Huge own goal by me when I tweeted the same picture Sunday and failed to cite the star photographer: NBA lifer Nat Butler.)
Russell's teams were 27-2 in playoff series, losing only to St. Louis in 1958 and to Philadelphia in 1967 (when Russell was the Celtics' player-coach).
Bob Ryan's favorite Russell stat: His teams were 21-0 in elimination games, including 10-0 in NBA Game 7s on top of his 9-0 record in the NCAA Tournament at the University of San Francisco and the gold-medal game of the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.
Russell won a shade more than 60 percent of his 143 head-to-head meetings with Wilt Chamberlain. His teams went 57-37 against Chamberlain during the regular season and 29-20 in the playoffs.
Russell was relegated to All-NBA second team eight times in his 13 pro seasons largely thanks to Chamberlain's presence. He earned All-NBA first team honors only three times (1957-58, 1962-63 and 1964-65).
Then-commissioner David Stern named the NBA Finals MVP trophy in Russell's honor ... 40 years after Russell's last game in the 1969 Finals. Russell never won the award because it wasn't introduced by the league until his final season as an active player; Lakers legend Jerry West won it in 1969 and remains the only player in NBA history to earn Finals MVP honors from the losing team.
The NBA didn't introduce the Defensive Player of the Year trophy that he surely would have won countless times until the 1982-83 season ... 14 years after Russell's retirement.
Russell is one of five Basketball Hall of Fame inductees to be enshrined in Springfield as both a player and a coach, joining John Wooden, Lenny Wilkens, Bill Sharman and Tommy Heinsohn.
Russell refused to attend his own induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., because he believed that his former teammate Chuck Cooper — one of the first three Black players in NBA history alongside Earl Lloyd and Nathaniel Clifton — should have been enshrined before he was.
The last word for the second consecutive piece we’ve published this week goes to former NBA guard and front office executive Rex Chapman, who pointed out late Monday via his nonstop Twitter account that Russell is just the fifth of the NBA’s 35 MVPs no longer with us. The others we’ve lost: Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone, Wes Unseld and, of course, Kobe Bryant. 💔