Retiring Bill Russell's No. 6 ensures his legacy of equality and justice endures

Decades from now, a child will look up into the rafters of an NBA arena and ask what all those banners hanging from the ceiling mean.

Whoever brought him or her to the game will explain that some are to commemorate the titles the team has won while others are to honor the team’s best players. And that No. 6? That, the child will be told, is to honor the great Bill Russell, who won more championships than anybody else and who stood taller than his 6-foot-10 frame in fighting racism and other social injustices.

And Russell’s legend, and his influence, will live on.

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“Bill Russell’s unparalleled success on the court and pioneering civil rights activism deserves to be honored in a unique and historic way,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Thursday in announcing that Russell’s number will be retired across the league. “Permanently retiring his No. 6 across every NBA team ensures that Bill’s transcendent career will always be recognized.”  

If wearing a number somebody else made famous is a sign of respect, retiring it so it can never be worn again is the ultimate sign of reverence. The rare honor is a public pronouncement that the person who wore it was unique, carried so much weight, and was so indispensable that no one else could possibly measure up.

So it is only fitting that Russell becomes the first NBA player to have his number retired leaguewide, and only the third in all of the American professional sports after Jackie Robinson and Wayne Gretzky.

Like Gretzky, whose No. 99 the NHL retired, Russell was transformative as a player. If your jaw dropped at LeBron James’ come-from-out-of-nowhere block in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, or you scour social media for Ja Morant’s defensive highlights, you have Russell to thank.

Before he arrived in the league, the defense was stodgy and static, about as formidable – and entertaining – as a live-action cone drill. But Russell refused to stay still. With his motion and jumping, coupled with a master class-knowledge of his opponents, he made defense multi-dimensional.

"When I started playing, (coach Red Auerbach) said he didn't know what I was doing because he had never seen anything like that," Russell told USA TODAY. "I went against everything. I started defense to offense. Everybody else was (the opposite), including him. He saw things I did and, after he understood them, made it part of his system.”

And it turned the Boston Celtics into a dynasty. In 13 seasons, Russell and the Celtics won 11 championships.

Like Robinson, whose No. 42 is retired across Major League Baseball, Russell was the social conscience not only of his sport but the nation. Long before it was considered acceptable for an athlete, he spoke out against injustice, racism in particular.

When a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, would not serve two Black teammates before an exhibition there in 1961, Russell boycotted the game. He refused to tolerate his abysmal treatment by Boston fans, calling the city a “flea market of racism.”

Not long after civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated by white supremacists in Jackson, Mississippi, Russell held an integrated basketball camp in the city. That same year, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and watched from the front row as King gave his “I have a dream” speech. When Muhammad Ali was stripped of his titles and wasn’t allowed to box over his refusal to be drafted, Russell was one of the few who was vocal in his support.

And years later, when it became clear NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was being blackballed for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality against Black and brown people, Russell posted a photo of himself kneeling while wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Proud to take a knee, and to stand tall against social injustice,” Russell captioned the photo.

There will never be another player like Bill Russell. But because his number will hang in honor in every NBA arena, there will be people in the generations to come who will share his commitment to equality and justice.

There is no better, or more deserved, a tribute to a man so influential on and off the court. 

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