Bill Russell takes in a portrait of himself while standing in a hallway at McClymonds High School. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
When I met the late Bill Russell in 2012, I knew all about the awards and championships. I read articles on the racism he faced on and off the court, as well as his civil rights work. And of course, I knew about his upbringing in Oakland. But I didn't know about his sense of humor.
"Hello Mr. Russell, my name is Pen," I respectfully introduced myself, in the parking lot of his alma mater. He instantly questioned me.
"Pen, did you catch him?" he asked in a serious tone.
Caught off-guard, I responded, "Uhhhh, catch who?"
Pointing at my long beard, he says, "The gentleman who stole your razor!"
Roasted. He got me.
The interaction made for a perfect entry in my OG Told Me series, a photoessay dedicated to documenting the wisdom of older Black men in my community. It wasn't that he'd said anything profound, necessarily. It was what he'd showed me: that simply comical interaction from a person who has so many badges of honor is a mark of humility (served to me with a small side of humiliation).
During that stop at McClymonds High School, he visited classrooms, media production spaces and athletic facilities. I followed as the campus security guards turned into little boys in his presence. School administrators giggled. The loud students got shy. Russell interacted with them all.
With the assistance of a student, a teacher and artist named Rose Marr had just completed a portrait of Russell. She was noticeably excited as she showed it to him. He smiled and laughed, asked her about another artist, and then mentioned that he was that artist's first teacher.
Most memorable was Russell's reaction to the wall inside the center used for after school programs. That's where I led a class. A list of agreements for students who occupied that space included things like, "Step Up, Step Back" and "Clean Up After Yourself."
You ever laugh because you hear someone's else's laugh? That's what happened when I heard the laugh that erupted from Russell as he read the rule of "No Booty on Duty."
That's what I kept thinking about when I read the news that Bill Russell passed at the age of 88 yesterday morning, a sad day for sports fans, social justice advocates and Bay Area folks alike. I just keep smiling and laughing, thinking about the run-in we had in West Oakland. It's often mentioned, but they don't talk enough about Bill Russell's sense of humor.
Russell's greatness is well documented. A graduate of Oakland's McClymonds High School, who won two NCAA national championships as a USF Don and a 1956 Olympic Gold with team USA. He'd go on to win 11 NBA championships, become the first African American coach in pro sports and a receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
Russell's efforts to fight racism in America are widely known. He was present at Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. He led a basketball camp in Mississippi after the assassination of Medgar Evers. An outspoken supporter of Colin Kaepernick and a critic of American policing, in the wake of George Floyd's murder Russell penned an essay about his lifelong battle with racism.
The photo from the meeting known as the Muhammad Ali Summit or the Cleveland Summit—a conference of famed professional athletes including Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—is one of the most iconic images in sports history.
But the image of Russell flipping the bird at Charles Barkley during an NBA award show in 2018 gives you a glance at the guy I followed around with a camera for a few minutes in 2012.
I got to ride on an elevator with a human who represents American history. Before being part of one of the greatest professional sports dynasties ever, he was part of the Great Migration.
After a childhood in West Monroe, Louisiana, he moved with his family to West Oakland, and to a high school environment that produced athletes like Vada Pinson Jr. (former MLB player), Curt Flood (former MLB player and free agency advocate) and Frank Robinson (MLB superstar and the first African American MLB manager).
Names like those used to be listed on a Distinguished McClymonds Graduates wall that wasn't too far from where the "No Booty on Duty" agreements were listed. What's funny is I don't recall Russell's reaction to seeing the names on that wall—not even his own. But I'll never forget how the entire school responded to seeing one of the names on that wall in real life.
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