PHOENIX – The ultimate winner strode to the dais, beaming with pride. Bill Russell, winner of 11 NBA championships, called this “one of my proudest moments in basketball.”
From this day forward, the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award will be named for Bill Russell.
“I accept this for my team,” Russell said, his voice cracking with emotion. “And my team included our coach, Red Auerbach, and all my teammates over the years.”
It was a bittersweet moment, said Russell, who last month lost his beloved wife, Marylin, after a long bout with cancer. Commissioner David Stern had a chance to tell Marylin about the honor her husband would be receiving, and she carried the secret with her – perhaps only telling Auerbach up in heaven.
Incredibly, Russell never actually won a Finals MVP trophy. They didn’t start handing them out until 1969, when Russell’s Celtics beat the Lakers but Jerry West got the award – the only one given to a player on the losing team. So now you understand why, upon receiving the trophy from Stern Saturday night, William Felton Russell held it as tenderly as a newborn.
“I learned very early in my career,” Russell said, “that the only important statistic in basketball is the final score. I dedicated my career in basketball to making sure we were on the positive end.”
There were jokes and pleasantries, even a thorny bouquet for the writers, with whom the reclusive Russell has long clashed.
“I want to explain something to you,” Russell said. “This is only the second time I’ve been out in public since I got my hearing aids. When I found out I was gonna be around a lot of guys from the media, I put ‘em in a drawer back in the hotel room.”
Laughter filled the room, and Russell said, "My second year in the league, I was the most valuable player of the league by the players' votes. But I was second-team all-league by the writers' vote. That's why I didn't wear them. ... The reason I don’t wear them is not vanity. The reason I don’t wear them is that I like what I don’t hear.”
Russell turned 75 this week, and has emerged from seclusion to become an ambassador for the NBA and mentor to its young players at a time when the league really needs one. I say this not because the league is in bad shape, because it’s not. I say this because it has a tremendous opportunity to truly enter another “golden era of basketball,” as Stern always says.
The kids are gonna be all right, but they need some guidance. They need to remember where they came from, need someone to look up to. Russell can help.
When the laughter died down and the room went quiet, Russell’s famously hoarse voice went soft, the emotion of the moment tightening his throat.
“Very seriously,” Russell said, “what I’m going to do next week is visit my father’s grave. Because he was my hero and I’m going to share this with him.”