In the fading sunlight just before the kick-off for football’s season opener at the “School of Champions,” McClymonds High School paid tribute to the greatest Warrior of all, basketball immortal and social justice activist Bill Russell.
Russell, who transitioned this past July 31 at the age of 88, led McClymonds to two state championships before leading the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA titles. After earning gold in the 1956 Olympics, Russell went on to win eight consecutive NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, 11 total, including the last two as a player-coach and as the first Black coach of a professional sports team. There is no comparable record in professional sports.
As I walked among the former McClymonds athletes, alumni, and civic leaders gathered along the long shadows of the sidelines before the game, I remembered the harsh Pennsylvania winters of the 1960’s during my adolescence. The Sunday afternoon NBA Game of the Week provided a respite from the cold and the hope that our hero Wilt Chamberlain and the 76ers would overcome Russell’s Celtics. I came to loathe the inevitable sting of defeat, and especially Bill Russell.
As he shaded his eyes along the sidelines, professional basketball player Will Cherry, in contrast, spoke of the awe he felt in Russell’s presence. Like all McClymonds students, Cherry had passed countless times by the NBA legend’s trophy case along the school’s corridors. After winning the 2008 state basketball championship, Cherry and his teammates met with Russell in the school library. “I only became more impressed as I learned more about him over time, especially his achievements off the court,” Cherry told Oakland Voices.
Former NBA player and basketball analyst Antonio Davis also highlighted Russell’s influence beyond the hardcourt. Davis noted Russell’s true records as a lifelong advocate for social justice: walking with Dr. King at the March on Washington, standing with Muhammed Ali when he resisted the draft and spoke out against the Vietnam War, and being presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
A son of the second wave of the Great Migration, the Russells first shared a house with nine other families in North Oakland and later moved “to the projects” in West Oakland, as Russell referred to it in a wide-ranging Library of Congress oral history, before settling at a home near the corner of Ninth and Center Streets. His favorite past times were using his Oakland Public Library card and a $2 membership to the Boys Club paid for by his high school coach, along with occasional pick up games at DeFremery Park.
A contemporary of Russell, William Patterson often hosted the accomplished Russell who returned to speak with young people. “Bill always stressed respect,” Patterson told Oakland Voices. “Out of respect came love and out of love came teamwork, which is the basis of success.”
Councilmember Carroll Fife remembers Russell as “one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the game and a fierce racial and social justice activist.” Fife authored the August City Council resolution honoring him.
Ronald Muhammed, long active as a McClymonds alumni board member, shared that Russell, along with Joe Morgan and others, donated generously and anonymously to an endowment for student scholarship funds that “continue to this day,” Muhammed said. “I never knew until years later.”
OUSD Communications Director John Sasaki was “over the moon’’ when he first interviewed Russell as a young reporter. “He was one of those people, when you met him, you knew you were in the presence of greatness,” Sasaki said. “Not just the greatness as a basketball player, but greatness as someone who dedicated himself to making the world a better place.”
The Junior Varsity team scored the winning touchdown in the waning moments of their game against Bellarmine. With due honor, and following a moment of silence, the banner with Bill Russell on it was hoisted at midfield as Patterson applauded and looked over at the joyful smile of his old friend. The event was organized in part by alumni of the school, including head football coach Michael Peters, along with Brian McGhee, who is also the Program Manager for the African American Male Achievement in the school district’s Office of Equity.
The sounds of cheerleaders and fans soon filled the air as the Friday night lights shined down on the gridiron again over the ebb and flow of the opening plays of a new season.
I had long ago made peace with my misguided teenage angst with Bill Russell.
Now, beyond all the school’s many distinguished alumni — and beyond all records, greatness descended again over McClymonds field, as a hopeful breeze carried the roar of the crowd across West Oakland on the wings of the message of its greatest Warrior: to continue to fiercely fight the good fight.