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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Bill Russell’s lessons resonate

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: August 7, 2022, 6:01am

Even after 14 years, the wisdom remains fresh. Pearls such as “There are no ‘other people’s children’ in the United States of America.”

That was from basketball great Bill Russell, delivered during a 2008 appearance in Vancouver. Russell was speaking to support a local mentoring program, and my coverage of the speech noted, “The stories were charming, sometimes reflective, sometimes gregarious.”

When Russell died last week at the age of 88, spawning a flood of tributes and remembrances, it was a good excuse to call up the article and the notes from that visit. It was a good excuse to reflect on a thin local tie to a remarkable athlete and a remarkable man, a figure who towered in the world of sports and beyond.

“That’s what mentoring is,” Russell told the Vancouver audience. “You learn some things in life, then you see a kid who’s a blank page. The only way you can really help someone is with what you share, not what you give them.”

With carefully cultivated images, famous people typically learn how to say the right things in public. But Russell lived his words, helping to found the National Mentoring Project and serving on its board to connect young people with a stable guiding influence.

Of course, Russell wasn’t asked to speak in Vancouver because of his support for mentoring. He was invited here because he might have been the greatest basketball player in history and because he undoubtedly was the greatest winner in team sports.

In 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, he led his franchise to 11 NBA championships. For the last two of those titles, he was a player-coach, the first Black coach in a major team sport. And even before he joined the Celtics in 1956, Russell won two national championships at the University of San Francisco and a gold medal in the Olympics.

You can argue that Russell benefited from playing alongside great teammates and from having a coach who was ahead of his time. But there is no arguing with the results or the sense that he was a perfect teammate.

“I was thought of as an unselfish player,” Russell said. “That was absolutely, unequivocally untrue. I was completely self-absorbed. But I played a team game. If I can take my skills, my talent, my attitude, even my arrogance, and make my team the best there is, then my ego is satisfied.”

That is a powerful quote. It is a quote that should be emblazoned in every locker room and every boardroom and every Army barracks in the country. It is a quote that should be memorized by anybody who needs to work in a team setting, which means everybody.

Human nature being what it is, most of us are too selfish to willfully sacrifice for team success if it means subjugating individual glory. But Russell innately understood the secret of teamwork — therefore, success — as much as anybody who has ever been in the public eye.

All of that developed from a childhood without privilege. “I asked my dad, ‘Are we poor?’ ” Russell recalled. “He says, ‘No, we’re broke. Poor is a state of mind. Broke is a temporary situation.’ ”

And all of that developed in a Black man at a time when Black people were denied basic rights in this country. Russell became a visible supporter of the civil rights movement, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and holding an integrated basketball camp in the segregated South.

In 2017, when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was vilified for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police violence against Black people, Russell tweeted a photo of himself on one knee and wrote, “Proud to take a knee and to stand tall against social injustice.”

Russell was into his 80s by then, inhabiting a status as a lionized elder statesman. He could have comfortably rested on his laurels, relaxed in his comfort, become complacent in his fame and his status.

Instead, he chose to share more pearls about life and justice and injustice, just as he had years before in Vancouver. Even late in his life, Bill Russell continued to mentor the rest of us.