A 2013 photo of basketball great and civil rights activist Bill Russell who died July 31, 2022, at 88

Former Boston Celtics basketball player Bill Russell at the award ceremonies for the 2013 W.E.B. Du Bois Medal, given by Harvard University.

Tributes this past week to basketball great Bill Russell were as many as they were deserved. I couldn’t follow them all, which is a pity. Sportswriting and obituaries often display some of the best writing in journalism. Wedding the two, as happened in every Russell tribute I was able to read, provided masterful examples of grace on deadline.

After hearing of Russell’s death on July 31, 2022, at age 88, I scouted consciously for pieces from two of my favorite sports-smart writers. I wasn’t disappointed.

Washington Post sports columnist Jerry Brewer painted a portrait of Russell as a man who was as relentless in his work for civil rights as he was in his basketball. The quiet description of Russell as “defensive savant” captured the essence of Russell’s greatness in a game usually dominated by flash and dunks, and in a society too often dominated by racism. And then there’s that deft echo to a cherished journalistic principle at the end of the same passage:

He was a star who did the dirty work, a defensive savant who led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships by excelling at whatever winning required. And he was a star who did the important work, a disrupter who demanded better from America and confronted racism without fear or fatigue.

And, of course, I was eager to read Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce. I say “of course” because before Pierce turned to politics as his primary journalistic focus, he was a sports reporter — one of the best. And he’s from Massachusetts, where Russell earned an unrivaled record wearing Boston Celtic green.

No matter what Pierce writes, he weaves an astonishing grasp of American history and culture, connecting the disparate dots of our shared existence and reflecting it back to us in ways that can be uncomfortable. Being asked to think is like that, and Pierce turns the request into a dare.

In 11 grafs of his own, built upon two from late President John F. Kennedy, Pierce uses Russell’s challenges and mastery on the court as a metaphor for what arguably were greater battles and accomplishments in the world. Pierce wraps it all in the essay’s theme: Russell was a “Game 7” player, in basketball and in life, because he showed up. Here’s the pointed and elegant conclusion:

From college to the NBA, from marching with Dr. King to taking a knee for Colin Kaepernick, Bill Russell showed up because Bill Russell always did. America always has needed its Game 7 players, and there was no better Game 7 player than Bill Russell, who passed away on Sunday in the 88th year of a life of activism and involvement.

A world without Bill Russell is a more fearful, more timid place, and that is not what we need right now, God help us. We need the Game 7 players, the ones who show up because that’s what you do, no matter how many murderers are walking free in the dark.


A version of this essay was first published as a Storyboard newsletter on Aug. 5, 2022

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