On the night of June 12, 1963, the long season of public political killings began in earnest. That night, the President of the United States of America went on television and gave a speech about the moral imperative of the civil rights movement. John F. Kennedy said to the nation:
We are confronted above all with a moral question. It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution. The crux of the matter is whether all Americans should have the same rights and opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans the way we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot have lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public servants who will represent, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life that we all want, then who among us would be happy to see the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be satisfied with the advice of patience and delay?
A hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, but their heirs, their grandsons, are not completely free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet free from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
In a low house at 2332 Margaret Walker Drive in the Eltraine subdivision of Jackson, Mississippi, Myrlie Evers and her three children watched the president on television. Shortly after the end, she heard her husband’s car pull up in the carport at the side of the house. Then she heard the gunshots. A bullet went through the house and hit her kitchen. She ran outside to find her husband, Medgar Evers, bleeding in the driveway, shot in the back by a racist coward named Byron de la Beckwith, who would not be brought to justice for 31 years. The long season of public political killings had begun. John Kennedy would be dead five months later.
The next day, Bill Russell called the Evers family. Shortly before, Russell and the Celtics had won their fifth straight NBA championship, and he won his third consecutive Most Valuable Player award. Now he was calling the Evers family to see what he could do for them. Come here, they told him. Come here and host an all-in-one basketball camp for the kids right here where this long season of political killings started.
And Bill Russell is gone.
It was serious business at a serious time. Wherever Russell went, he was accompanied by the Defense Deacons, an informal phalanx of bodyguards, because the man who killed Evers wouldn’t go to jail until 1994. A murderer would go free for another three decades, and he was not the only free merchant in Mississippi at that time.
But Bill Russell went to Jackson. Russell had everything to lose, and he showed up because he always did.
To me, the most amazing statistic of Russell’s astonishing basketball career is that his teams have played 10 decisive seventh NBA games, and they’ve won them all. Including his college career at the University of San Francisco and his gold medal at the 1956 Olympics, his teams played 22 games that decided championships, and they never lost. In the games that mattered, he showed up because he always did.
In 1969, my father and I went to Boston for our annual dinner at the Officers Club at Charlestown Navy Yard. Then we went back down the river to the old Boston Garden to watch Russell and the Celtics take on the Los Angeles Lakers, who had Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. (It was the days when you could go to the Garden box office and buy Celtics-Lakers tickets half an hour before the game.) It was a tense, tense game played at a level befitting the fact that 11 players in the game would end up in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
In the end, with the game on, Russell grabbed Jerry West from behind and blocked his lay-up. Then he blocked a Chamberlain dunk, which was a very perilous act. These two pieces saved the game, and they fired my imagination for what was possible as vividly as any book I’ve ever read. He showed up because he always did.
From college to the NBA, from walking with Dr. King to taking a knee for Colin Kaepernick, Bill Russell showed up because Bill Russell always did. America has always needed its Game 7 players, and there was no better Game 7 player than Bill Russell, who died Sunday in the 88th year of a life of activism and involvement.
A world without Bill Russell is a more fearful, more timid place, and that’s not what we need right now, God help us. We need Game 7 players, the ones who show up because that’s what you do, no matter how many murderers roam free in the dark.
Charles P Pierce is the author of four books, the most recent of which stupid americaand has worked as a journalist since 1976. He lives near Boston with his wife but no longer his three children.
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