Bill Russell is arguably the greatest player in the history of the NBA. He was also a towering figure off the court for how he used his voice to promote justice, equality, and civil rights for all.

I attended one of the last Phoenix Suns’ games before the NBA shut everything down because of the pandemic. The Suns were awful that season, so we were able to get amazing seats near the court. Just prior to the start of the game, people were moving down to their seats or going up to the mezzanine to get something to eat.

I was about to follow when I looked around and saw that everyone who had been in the aisle, had stepped back into their rows. They were all standing and watching as a very tall, white-haired man slowly make his way down the steps to a seat near the court. It was Bill Russell. Nobody took a selfie or asked for an autograph. Instead, everyone stood quietly, in respect. As he walked by, people began applauding softly. He looked around and nodded.

All of us in that section of the arena understood that we were in the presence of greatness. Bill Russell was one of those rare athletes who not only transformed the game he played, but also made a difference in the fight for justice and equality. President Obama recognized that by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. No one ever deserved it more.

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