The NBA retired its first number ever Thursday, and Bill Russell’s No. 6 couldn’t be a better choice — if it’s not the only choice. A transcendent figure as a player, as a coach, and as a civil rights leader, Russell’s legacy takes dictionaries’ to define. Of the four major professional sports in America, Jackie Robinson’s 42 and Wayne Gretzky’s 99 are the only other jerseys off limits to the league.
It doesn’t surprise anyone that this happened, but it is shocking (depending on who you are) that it took this long. I’m not sure if the Twitter rumors/suggestions that circulated after Russell’s passing on July 31 prompted the move, or if an NBA announcement had been in the works, but the general reaction seemed to be that it was logical and the right thing to do.
Can you cement someone’s legacy if it’s already been etched in the annals of history? Whatever you want to call it, Russell’s impact on the game is now immortalized, and considering what he stood for, how he stood for it, and who he stood with, what he did off the floor can’t be celebrated enough.
The abuse he took from his own city is well documented, and some have said he was too good of a man to be saddled with Boston’s fanbase. With this move, his significance officially spreads to every corner of the NBA, from Boston to LA, up to Portland, over Chicago, and down to Miami.
Across the league, 23 players wear No. 6 last season — most notably, LeBron James — and they’ll be grandfathered into the distinction of being the last to sport that number.
While it would’ve been nice if Russell was alive to see his jersey raised to every rafter, it’s sadly reflective of the way he’s somehow overlooked that this honor comes after his passing.
There was only one number the NBA could’ve ever retired, and it’s Russell’s No. 6.