BOSTON — Ahead of the Celtics opening the 2022-23 NBA season against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night at TD Garden, the franchise celebrated the life and legacy of Bill Russell, the 11-time NBA champion and civil rights icon whose No. 6 was permanently retired by the NBA in the wake of his death this summer.
“Bill Russell was a great man,” Celtics star Jaylen Brown said as part of a pregame ceremony honoring Russell. “But what did that mean? What defined his greatness? Who he was as a mentor, a father, a member of his community, most certainly his 11 championships here in Boston, both playing and coaching.
“But, undoubtedly, Bill Russell was a great man for what and who he stood for. During the peak of racial tensions in our society, he represented a type of nobility and honor that transcended sports. The amount of respect he receives from people will live on in eternity, and I’m grateful I was able to shake his hand. He was a true champion both on and off the court, and our gratitude is endless.
“I started off saying Bill Russell was a great man. Bill Russell was the greatest of men.”
The ceremony started about 15 minutes before Tuesday night’s game tipped off with a video highlighting Russell’s career, followed by Brown’s speech and a spoken word poem by Boston’s poet laureate, Porsha Olayiwola.
A second video then played featuring not only his basketball accomplishments, but also his extensive work as a civil rights advocate, including his being given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011 — a video that played over a performance by recording artist Aloe Blacc.
Throughout the ceremony, individual spotlights shone on the No. 6 in the paint at both ends of the court — part of several tributes the Celtics will be paying to arguably the greatest figure in the league’s history, and one who towers over all sports here.
Later, fans honored Russell’s widow, Jeannine Russell, as she sat courtside and tearfully acknowledged a standing ovation during a timeout in the third quarter of the Celtics’ 126-117 win.
After Russell died in July at the age of 88, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that, beginning this season, his No. 6 would be retired across the league, giving Russell the same honor baseball gave another all-time great on and off the field: Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson.
“Bill Russell’s unparalleled success on the court and pioneering civil rights activism deserve to be honored in a unique and historic way,” Silver said then in a statement announcing the decision. “Permanently retiring his No. 6 across every NBA team ensures that Bill’s transcendent career will always be recognized.”
In addition to the jersey retirement — which didn’t impact players already wearing No. 6, including Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James — all NBA players will wear a commemorative patch on the right shoulder of their jerseys during the 2022-23 season, and every court will display a shamrock-shaped logo with Russell’s No. 6 on the sideline near the scorer’s table.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.