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A tale of two sports legends: Bill Russell and Jim Brown

Jimmy Myers
A tale of two sports legends: Bill Russell and Jim Brown
The statue of the Celtics’ Bill Russell at Boston City Hall Plaza. PHOTO: PETER E

It is one thing to speak of historical figures you have researched but did not see with your eyes. It is entirely another to talk of legendary figures whose exploits you witnessed through the collective lenses of your own eyes.

I speak from the perspective of a first-hand witness to the lives of Mr. William Felton Russell and Mr. James Nathaniel Brown (both have passed from this life during the last year). Both men achieved Hall of Fame recognition for their work in their chosen sports — Russell was the centerpiece for the Boston Celtics dynasty (11 NBA titles in 13 years). Brown, who died May 18, was the greatest football player in sports history, in this writer’s opinion, and among the most knowledgeable football fans.

I saw each one of these great athletes throughout their playing careers and followed their off-the-field lives with intense interest. Both men became iconic figures for their work on civil rights and social justice by speaking out to white America in a language they were not ready to hear or even trying to comprehend.

Russell’s history is well documented, as is Brown’s. Both have bronze statues as lasting monuments to their athletic greatness. But my highest praise goes to Bill Russell for what he had to endure while bringing glory to Boston. If you don’t know of his travails, find a copy of his first two books: “Go up for Glory” and “Second Wind.”

The statue of Hall of Famer Jim Brown at First Energy Stadium in Cleveland. PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA

Brown joined forces with Russell, a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and many other prominent Black athletes of that period in support of boxing legend Muhammad Ali in his battle against the U.S. government over his refusal to be drafted into the military. They gathered together for what is now known as the famous Cleveland Summit meeting. Ali, who also has his bronze statue, won his case in the U.S. Supreme Court and became a global icon. But it was Russell’s presence that stood out in my mind because I had followed his history and knew his courage to “fight the good fight,” no matter the consequences.

I grew up in Philadelphia and became a Boston Celtics fan because of what I had learned of Bill Russell, the man. My other heroes from that time were Jackie Robinson, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, to name a few. But Russell stood at the mountaintop of a young Black manchild’s dreams. He was 6’9” tall, and he (along with Wilt Chamberlain) looked mountainous to a little person (barely 5 feet) like me. Looking up at that “Bill Russell mountain” and knowing what he stood for inspired me to become the best man I could be.

I witnessed Jim Brown during his playing career and his days as a Hollywood movie star. In 1964, his rushing exploits (114 yards in the National Football League title game) led the Cleveland Browns to a 27-0 victory over the Baltimore Colts of Johnny Unitas fame. I can state, without reservation, that I have seen the “Dirty Dozen” movie over 100 times. I cried at the first showing when Brown’s character was killed, and I still get misty-eyed when I see the film.

The hardest part of dealing with the legacy of Brown revolves around his mistreatment of women. The documented evidence of this issue is a stain on his legacy and cannot disappear.

But his work with “Amer-I-can” and on other social justice issues (with a special mention of his efforts with the Crips and Bloods of Los Angeles and other gangs in cities across the country) will always be lauded and bring praise to his name.

Russell took a longer and more arduous road to achieve his ultimate glory, being named the recipient of the Medal of Freedom in 2011, the highest award bestowed upon a citizen. No disrespect to Jackie Robinson, whom I, unfortunately, did not get to know until the twilight of his life. It was tough not to see a sculpture built in his honor here in the city. But I fought for 40 years to get a statue raised to honor Russell in Boston, one of the greatest, most prolonged and best fights I have ever fought. His figure, erected in 2014, now stands in City Hall Plaza.

Rest eternal, Bill Russell and Jim Brown. You are two legends gone from this life who will not be forgotten.

Bill Russell, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Browns, Jim Brown