The number that Bill Russell did not want to retire


The legendary Celtics player requested that his number 6 not be withdrawn due to the racism he had suffered in Boston. Now the NBA will eliminate that digit in his honor in all franchises.

Bill Russell’s number 6 numberAP
  • Baloncesto Bill Russell, Celtics icon and one of basketball’s great legends, dies

Bill Russell didn’t want a big ceremony. He had decided it seeing how people reacted at the farewell of Bob Cousy, the first star of the Boston Celtics. Tears, cheers, bouquets of flowers. She looked like she was dying and not quitting basketball. He didn’t want his bib stripped off and hung high up in Boston Garden, either. “The one who is withdrawing is me. My number, let him do what he wants,” he said. That number 6 that he had already made eternal by winning 11 rings in 13 seasons, and that no one else will wear in the NBA: the league announced that all franchises will retire their number in honor of the greatest winner of all time.

I have very little faith applause, what it means and how long it will last,” wrote Bill Russell in Second Wind, one of the best memoirs of a basketball player, although he hardly talked about what happened on the court. A book written with the wounds still raw (1979, a decade after his retirement), and where he reveals more reasons why, when Red Auerbach proposed to him to withdraw his number with the Celtics, he put a condition on it: that the ceremony outside behind closed doors.

Boston was a flea market for racism. He had it in all its varieties, and almost all of it in its most virulent form,” Russell writes, though he omits the nastiest episodes. Like the time his house was vandalized because he moved to a wealthy, majority-white area. The assailants wrote ‘ Nigga’ (the derogatory form of ‘black’) on the walls and defecated on his bed, among other things.A city capable of celebrating his sporting achievements while reminding him of the place for his kind.

“I’d rather be incarcerated in Sacramento than mayor of Boston,” he would say years later. His sin was twofold: being black and openly fighting for civil rights. For not being limited to play basketball. In fact, among sportswriters he was called ‘Felton X’, a play on his middle name (William Felton Russell) and Malcolm X. memories.

It would have been barbaric hypocrisy for that same city to fire him between tears and applause. A place he didn’t want to return to in the first few years after his retirement. Until in 1972, already working on television, he had to comment on a Celtics home game and Auerbach ambushed him.

14,000 empty seats

The first time that the Celtics retired the number by Bill Russell, the ceremony was held before nearly 14,000 empty seats. There were three hours left before the game and the pavilion was still closed. There, beyond a handful of former colleagues, there were only workers, operators and some farsighted journalist.

In the few images that survive of the moment the banner was raised, with the number 6 sewn in a little corner next to 24 Sam Jones, there are only six people. Auerbach, Russell and Tom Heinsohn, former teammate and successor on the bench, appear dressed in suits. In short, John Havlicek, Satch Sanders and Don Chaney, the only ones besides Don Nelson who were still active out of those who had coincided with him.

“I’ve played for the Celtics, not to Boston“, he wrote about that unusual decision. In part it was because of his aversion to recognition and public events (he led a very retired life until well into his third age), but also because of his relationship with the city to which he brought so much glory. , as he showed in his presentation as coach of the Seattle Supersonics, barely a year after the ceremony.

“It has been a very traumatic experience and I have had some scars,” he confessed. “We won 11 rings and after the last one there were still people in Boston telling me there were too many blacks in the team”.

Bill Russell would take decades to reconcile with boston, and until 1999 he did not accept that the Celtics paid tribute to him with another ceremony to retire his number. This time with the public, provided that part of the profits go to organizations that help young people.

only two precedents

Bill Russell was one of the players who, as Wilt Chamberlain, Maurice Stokes o Elgin Baylor, marked the evolution of basketball in the mid-twentieth century. They conquered the air for a sport that had lived at ground level. The fact that he did so by winning 11 rings with the Boston Celtics makes him one of the greatest in history. That he also used his loudspeaker to fight for civil rights makes it transcendental.

That is why the NBA has decided remove his number 6 bib in all franchises. Those players who currently wear it will be able to keep it – LeBron James, for example – but no one else will be able to use it from now on.

In North American sport there are only two precedents: the 42 of Jackie Robinson in the MLB (the first black player in the major leagues) and 99 Wayne Gretzky in the NHL (historical top scorer).

Robinson precisely belonged to that lineage of black athletes who, like Bill Russell, they used their privileged position to demand social justice in the sixties. A current that would be off for decades, in the heat of stars that understood that the confrontation made them lose money, as OJ Simpson (“I’m not black, I’m OJ,” he said) or Michael Jordanand which has regained strength in recent years.

After Robinson’s death, his daughter called Bill Russell with one of her last wishes: that he be one of the men who they will carry his coffin.

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