Bill Russell-Jackie Robinson connection deepens with NBA’s latest decision

UNSPECIFIED - UNDATED: Jackie Robinson, Sal Maglie and Gil Hodges celebrate another Brooklyn Dogders Victory (Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - UNDATED: Jackie Robinson, Sal Maglie and Gil Hodges celebrate another Brooklyn Dogders Victory (Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images) /

The NBA took a Jackie Robinson-inspired step this week, marking the occasion of Boston Celtics legend and civil rights pioneer Bill Russell’s death with a league-wide retirement of his jersey No. 6.

Having their jerseys hung in the rafters of every arena and stadium isn’t the only thing that will eternally connect Russell and Robinson, though. The pioneering Dodgers second baseman was the Celtics star’s hero, and according to the widow Rachel Robinson, the admiration went both ways.

As Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck stated on Thursday, the honor for Russell was only logical, considering he and Robinson walked nearly the same footsteps in life. The only difference? Russell’s pursuit continued a bit longer, due to what the fates allowed.

"“I think the honor is the perfect thing to do, because he’s the DNA and the bedrock of the Celtics and the modern NBA,” Grousbeck said. “We’re all trying to lead in social justice and equality and we’re tracing it back to Bill and honoring him and thanking him for giving his life to that.”"

The friendship between Robinson and Russell began as idolatry; as the Celtics legend retells it, he was “speechless” the first time the two connected. Even hearing the great Dodgers second baseman call him “Bill” changed his calculus.

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Eventually, though, the two parties became each other’s heroes, as Russell battled ongoing injustices close to home in Boston, often shirking the spotlight for years on end.

When Robinson passed away suddenly in 1972, his widow reportedly called on Russell to be a pallbearer, selling the job (which needed no advertising, really) by relating that the Celtics center was the pioneering baseball star’s favorite athlete.

Rachel Robinson reportedly shared the same sentiment. Ironically, one of Russell’s final tweets was sent Rachel’s way to wish her a happy 100th birthday.

Robinson and Russell’s lots in life were remarkably similar. Both came of age in an era where forces were put in place to prevent them from becoming iconoclasts. Robinson was “selected” as the first major leaguer to make the leap from the Negro Leagues, reportedly, because of his temperament; though anger swirled within him, he made it his mission not to fight back. Not to let them win.

Russell was the same way. He experienced extreme prejudice during his collegiate career in San Francisco and in international competition with Team USA, and fought constant aggression from certain Bostonians, even as he was becoming the NBA’s grand champion, securing 11 titles (three as a player/coach). His stardom didn’t matter to some; supposed fans even broke into his house and defecated in his bed during Russell’s glory years.

But Russell’s fight persisted, even as he shied away from the city of Boston, acting on that ill will to create change. Now, though his battle hasn’t been won, and may never be, he and Robinson have been reunited again in a place beyond the shadows, where they can familiarly call each other “Bill and Jackie,” and where families for generations to come can point and explain just what kind of man that circled number signifies.