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Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith grateful to be in Bill Russell’s inner circle

11.04.13 at 1:37 pm ET
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The city of Boston and the Celtics honored Bill Russell this past Friday, unveiling a 6-foot, 10-inch, 600-pound bronze statue of the 11-time NBA champion. Though the man has more championship rings than fingers, the ceremony detailed Russell’€™s work beyond basketball. For those in Russell’€™s inner circle — including Charles Barkley and Kenny “The Jet” Smith — the discussion was focused on Russell’€™s impact on society.

‘€œMost of us are too young to have seen him play,’€ said Barkley. ‘€œBut for guys like myself who got a chance to be around him, you see what a remarkable person he is. We know him more a man than a player.’€

Barkley and Smith, who are teammates on TNT’€™s extraordinarily popular “Inside the NBA,” both consider themselves very fortunate to be friends with the legendary Russell.

‘€œHe don’€™t talk to many people,’€ said Barkley. ‘€œSo if you get on the list, it’€™s pretty cool.’€

Smith was drafted by the Kings in 1987 and played a half-season for Russell, who was in his final stint as a head coach.

‘€œI was his first-ever draft pick,’€ said Smith. ‘€œI was overwhelmed meeting him. I didn’€™t know what to say, I didn’€™t know whether to call him ‘€˜Coach Russell,’€™ ‘€˜Bill,’€™ or ‘€˜Mr. Russell,’€™ and then my assistant coach was Willis Reed. I was in heaven. He taught me what teamwork was all about, regardless of winning and losing.’€

Smith, who emceed the ceremony, did not concentrate on Russell’€™s blocked shots or rebounds. He looks at him as a whole man, one who inspired people around the world and broke racial barriers. Smith thinks of the man who served as his mentor.

Russell’€™s greatest strength, in Smith’€™s words, is ‘€œhis ability to take a basketball moment and relate it to a lifetime experience. Something that my teammates always thought was going to be a punishment for me — sitting next to coach Russell on the team bus — actually turned out to be the best moment of my life.’€

Barkley laughed when recalling the story of Russell making Smith sit next to him on one of the Kings’ long bus rides. ‘€œKenny said, ‘€˜Why’€™ve I got to sit beside you?’€™ And Bill said, ‘€˜Because that guy’€™s a loser, that guy’€™s a loser, that guy’€™s a loser, and I don’€™t want you sitting with them.’€™ ‘€

Said Smith: ‘€œI sat next to him, on a bus ride or a plane ride, four hours a day. And if I went to sleep, he’€™d nudge me and go, ‘€˜Sleep nights, young fella. Listen to what I’€™m saying.’€™ And I listened to all those stories. It’€™s a great feeling to know I was part of that. Not being Satch Sanders or Tommy Heinsohn or any other great players who played with him, I feel like I’€™m one of those.’€

Barkley said he still cannot recall what originally brought him and Russell together.

‘€œFor some reason, we got attracted to each other and I started picking his brain,’€ said Barkley. ‘€œHe always talked to me about life, never about basketball. I’€™ve been fortunate enough to have him as a mentor.

‘€œHe’€™s the funniest guy in the world,’€ continued Barkley, ‘€œbut he’€™s not going to talk to you if he don’€™t know you. He’s probably got more stories than any person I’€™ve ever met in my entire life. I mean, they are the best stories. I told the story on the air when [Russell] got stopped by the cops. The cop started lecturing him, and he said, ‘€˜Hey, hey, hey. I don’€™t want to hear that [expletive]. You can give me a ticket or a lecture, but you can’€™t give me both.’€™ ‘€

Barkley also made it known that he respected Bill Russell as a man, grateful for Russell’€™s mentorship, his great competitiveness, and how he changed how the world viewed a strong-willed, intelligent African-American.

‘€œTo accomplish what he accomplished under the circumstances,’€ said Barkley, ‘€œthat’€™s remarkable. It’€™s easy to win when you’€™re traveling on private jets, staying at the Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons. But if you’€™re traveling by bus, staying in separate hotels, eating at separate restaurants, and you don’€™t become bitter or angry, that’€™s pretty remarkable.’€

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