The NBA announced last week that Bill Russell’s number 6 would be retired by all 30 teams in the league. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has stated there is a need to retire the iconic number, describing Russell as one of the league’s pioneers.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Howard Beck, Silver said that Russell’s social activism was crucial in the 1960s. He noted that despite the backlash that ensued, Russell never faltered and became a role model for generations of NBA players.
“He’s kind of the founding father of the modern NBA,” Silver said. “And with that, I think he became the DNA of the league, to make our players feel comfortable speaking out on societal issues. I’d say a lot of the courage of modern players, there’s a direct connection to Bill against the whole hold-and-dribble crowd.”
The gesture is historic as it was only made in baseball for Jackie Robinson and in hockey for Wayne Gretzky. Players currently wearing the No. 6, like LeBron James, are treated as grandfathers. All 30 NBA teams will stop issuing Russell’s No. 6 going forward.
Alongside Russell’s legacy, Silver also spoke about his close relationship with the late Boston Celtics great. The commissioner was present at Russell’s private memorial service in Seattle last week. He even gave Beck the reason the Hall of Fame Center didn’t sign autographs.
“He was happy to socialize with people,” Silver said. “It was just that there was nothing more superficial for him than his signature on a piece of paper, as opposed to a conversation with him. For him, fan support meant much more than signing autographs.
It meant professionalism. It meant how the players approached the game. It meant the players’ willingness to play as a team and give it their all to win. That’s what I think he meant by what they owed the fans.”
Bill Russell’s career in retrospect
Bill Russell was already a winner before he was drafted into the NBA. Russell was a two-time NCAA champion with the San Francisco Dons and a one-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA. He was picked second overall by the St. Louis Hawks but was immediately traded to the Boston Celtics.
Russell played 13 seasons with the Celtics and won 11 championships. He was also a five-time league MVP and a 12-time All-Star. He was player-coach for the last two seasons of his career and won two titles.
The 11-time champion has been twice inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He was inducted as a player in 1975 and as a coach in 2021. He was also inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 and the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2007.
However, the highest honor Bill Russell received was the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Former President Barack Obama presented him with the 2011 award for his role in the civil rights movement throughout his life.