MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

First of all, bravo! to the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association for collaborating on the permanent league-wide retirement of the jersey number 6 in honor of the late Bill Russell, 11-time league champion for the Boston Celtics, civil rights activist, mentor to NBA players until his final day, which was July 31, and the only person to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.

Secondly, I hope anybody under the age of 50 who fancies himself a basketball fan will now begin to understand that Bill Russell was one of a handful of the greatest basketball players in history, even though he played in the pioneering days of what is now the most progressive and one of the most powerful professional sports leagues in history.

And how do you suppose it came to be this way? Jordan? LeBron? Please. Just because you didn’t see history on SportsCenter last night doesn’t mean it hasn’t taken place. George Bernard Shaw was so right when he said that youth is wasted on the young.

Most importantly, I hope stupid kids begin to understand what the NBA and its players are trying to say here about how powerfully the legacy of Bill Russell continues to influence not only the NBA, but American culture as well.

As a Black man living in the racist city of Boston during the 1950s and ‘60s, not only did Russell lead the Celtics to 11 titles in 13 years, the final two as the player-coach to become the first Black head coach in any major U.S. pro sports league to win a championship, he marched with Martin Luther King, stood with Muhammad Ali and would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

He was Jackie Robinson’s favorite athlete and was asked by Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, to be a pallbearer for Jackie Robinson – the Jackie Robinson. Think about that.

And by the way, before he even arrived in Boston, Russell had led the University of San Francisco to a then-record 60-game winning streak and back-to-back NCAA national championships, as well as the United States Olympic basketball team to the gold medal.

I hope LeBron James is paying attention as well. He is certainly permitted to wear No. 6 for as long his career lasts, but I hope he understands why so many of us rolled our eyes when he announced that as a historian of basketball he would change his number from No. 23 to No. 6 to honor the legacy of (admittedly, the great) Julius Erving.

If LeBron had truly understood basketball history, he would have chosen the No. 32 that Dr. J. wore in his evolutionary ABA days with the New York Nets, not the No. 6 he wore in Philadelphia after the ABA-NBA merger put him in the league. The sole reason for the merger, after all, was what Erving had achieved and created in the ABA.

And, oh, by the way, why does LeBron suppose Dr. J. chose to wear No. 6 when he changed his number?

Beginning in his days as a youngster, despite his likely good intentions, LeBron has always seemed to just miss the point.

Today’s talking heads on television and even writers I respect a great deal have come to call Russell the greatest “winner” in American sports history; and certainly he remains the greatest winner in American sports history. But he was also one of the greatest athletes and greatest basketball players of all time.

It is a gross misconception that too many of the younger fans have that guys from previous eras couldn’t hang athletically in today’s NBA. Have you ever heard of Wilt Chamberlain?

Well, Wilt’s chief rival, Bill Russell, was a standout track and field athlete, particularly in the high jump in which he was ranked No. 7 in the world. One of his highest jumps (pre Fosbury Flop days) was 6-feet, 9-1/4 inches and occurred at the West Coast Relays, which tied Charlie Dumas, who would go on to win gold in the Melbourne Olympics for the United States and become the first person to high-jump 7 feet. Russell, who stood 6-feet-10, also ran the 440 in 49.3 seconds. That’s moving.

He went on to establish himself as basketball’s greatest team player, defensive player, rebounder and shot blocker. He was the first player to block a shot with touch and with feel, keeping the ball in play rather than sending it to the fourth row of the stands, directing it to teammates to start the Celtics’ legendary fastbreak. His outlet pass and his athleticism were unparalleled.

No, he didn’t have to score the way Wilt scored and that was a credit to Red Auerbach and the way he built the Celtics dynasty, but Russell could and did score big when it was necessary for him to. It was Auerbach’s brilliance and Russell’s beliefs of sharing and team play that brought it all together, guided it, led it, and made it go.

Neither Bill Russell nor his legacy need me or anybody else to try to legitimize them. That he was an extraordinary human being seems to be understood, even by dumbed down SportsCenter minions, but it does seem necessary for these mopes to understand that Bill Russell in his day could not only compete with even the best of today’s NBA players, he would win against the best of today’s NBA players.

That no player, from any team, will ever be allowed to wear his jersey number again would seem to indicate that, don’t you think?

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT