Shame on the NBA.
On the surface, it’s a tremendous honor to permanently retire Bill Russell’s No. 6. The league, along with the Players’ Association, announced Thursday that his number will never be issued to any player from here on out.
It was fitting.
After all, Russell was not only a great basketball player — winning 11 NBA championships in 13 years for the Boston Celtics — but a great person as well. He was a leader in civil rights off the court. He talked the talk and walked the walk. Faced with ugly racism in Boston, Russell did it with class and dignity.
A great honor befitting a great man.
Still, it feels like such a statement about the man came a day late and a dollar short.
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Russell died two weeks ago at age 88.
The NBA had so many years to honor Russell while he was still alive and could have seen and experienced such a defining moment in one’s life.
But the league bounced the ball off their own foot on this one. It’s really shameful if you honestly think about it.
Russell should have been given his flowers while he was alive. Russell remained active and had a presence in the league into his 80s.
It’s not like he was out of sight and out of mind.
In 2020, during the push to get folks vaccinated, Russell did a TV public service announcement for the league.
Instead of seizing that moment to honor one of its own, the NBA continued with business as usual.
It wasn’t until Russell died and people started to dig back into his life that the NBA felt compelled to do what’s right.
There was never honestly a buzz about honoring Russell. I’ve been covering the NBA since 1987. Never heard it once.
In fact, the first time most heard about this was when Hall of Famer Magic Johnson tweeted the idea a day or so after Russell passed.
The NBA wound up being reactionary instead of proactive. This should have been in the works many years ago. You shouldn’t have to be told that you had a treasure among your ranks. You should have known.
Russell retired many moons ago and was a successful coach and broadcaster, too. Russell was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975. The league could have honored him back then.
Better yet, they had another golden opportunity in 2010 when President Barack Obama honored Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his excellence on the court and on his commitment to social justice. Russell was 76 back then. Somehow, the NBA fell asleep at the switch on the momentous occasion.
It took Russell actually leaving us for the NBA to recognize the biggest man in the room. And that tag had nothing to do with his height. Clearly, Russell was head and shoulder above many when it came to standing up for what was right.
To be fair, the NBA named the Finals MVP Award after Russell for his contributions in 2009.
Still, there’s nothing as grand as having your number retired league-wide.
Jackie Robinson died early at 53. Still, MLB honored Robinson — who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 — in 1997. They retired his number for the entire game. It was the first time it had ever happened in pro sports.
In the NHL, Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99 was retired when he hung up his skates in 2000. The NHL didn’t flinch when it came time to honor The Great One.
For sure, the NBA is late to the party. Guess it’s better than being a total no-show.
In addition to retiring the legend’s number, the NBA will honor Russell with a patch. Every team will wear a commemorative patch on the right sleeve of their jerseys. NBA teams will also honor Russell with a clover-shaped logo featuring the No. 6 on the sideline.
According to Basketball Reference, 23 NBA players wore No. 6 last season, including Lakers star LeBron James. Those players will be grandfathered in and can continue to wear the number until they either decide to change their number or retire.
We saw that in baseball. Yankees’ HOFer Mariano Rivera was the last player to wear 42. He continued to wear the number even after MLB retired it as a tribute to Robinson. When Rivera retired, the No. 42 faded to black.
How amazing would it have been for Russell to see he was getting the same treatment as Robinson? The NBA swung and missed for its Jackie. And that’s a damn shame.