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.
‘Most of us are too young to have seen him play,’ said Barkley. ‘But 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.
‘He don’t talk to many people,’ said Barkley. ‘So 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.
‘I was his first-ever draft pick,’ said Smith. ‘I 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 ‘his 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. ‘Kenny 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: ‘I 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.
‘For some reason, we got attracted to each other and I started picking his brain,’ said Barkley. ‘He always talked to me about life, never about basketball. I’ve been fortunate enough to have him as a mentor.
‘He’s the funniest guy in the world,’ continued Barkley, ‘but 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.
‘To accomplish what he accomplished under the circumstances,’ said Barkley, ‘that’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.’