Bill Russell did the impossible when he led the Celtics to two championships as their player-coach.

Kobe Bryant didn’t expect to have a pleasant exchange with his opponents on Jan. 10. 17, 2006. With the defending champion Miami Heat in town, he’s sure to get another cool reception from former teammate-turned-rival Shaquille O’Neal. But when the pregame streak started, Bryant got a surprise visit from Big Diesel. He congratulated her on the impending birth of their second daughter and the two shared the kind of pleasant conversation that was no longer possible after years of public feuding. And then, after the game, O’Neal spoke to reporters and had a sudden realization.

“I had orders from the great Bill Russell,” O’Neal said. “He and I were talking the other day in Seattle, and he was telling me what a rivalry should be like. I asked him if he ever disliked anybody he played against, and he told me. Said, ‘No, never,’ and he said I should shake Kobe Bryant’s hand and let bygones be bygones and bury the hatchet.”

This was one of Russell’s many superpowers. Few athletes in human history have been as respected by their peers as Russell. who passed away on Sunday at the age of 88.. This respect gave him the ability to make the seemingly impossible completely understandable. And as impossible as his first nine championships seemed, what he accomplished as a coach should have been just as impossible.

When Reid Auerbach retired from coaching in 1966, he had a surprisingly difficult time filling his seat. Frank Ramsey was the first to say no. He had already moved back to Kentucky to care for his family, and in addition, he had a growing trio of nursing home businesses to oversee. And then, team legends Bob Cousy and Tommy Hensohn also passed, but Hensohn come up With a new twist: Why not let Russell coach the team himself? Auerbach liked the idea, and Russell accepted the job.

In doing so, he became the first black coach in a major North American professional sport. As much pressure as the position brings, Russell will also be doing something few coaches are forced to do: lead his teammates. That’s why Cousy, who had by then retired as a player, turned down the job. Getting players to see you as a teammate and treat you as an authority figure can be a seemingly impossible task. Russell not only did it, but he did it Still playing with them.

The Celtics remained an immensely talented team, but the roster itself was not nearly as dominant as it had been in the early dynasty era. Cousy, Heinsohn and Bill Sharman were gone. Big-name imports Bailey Howell and Wayne Embry were on the back nine, and Russell’s leading scorer during his tenure was Sam Jones on 33. Russell himself was 32, and his individual numbers were beginning to decline. It won’t be a walk in the park. The Philadelphia 76ers proved that in the 1967 postseason when they became the first team to defeat a healthy Russell in the playoffs, ending Boston’s streak of eight consecutive championships.

It’s the kind of loss that would tear apart a normal family, and things only got tougher in April 1968 when Martin Luther King, whom Russell knew personally, was killed in Memphis. The Celtics and 76ers were scheduled to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals a day later, and before Game 1, the Celtics discussed privately what they should do. Opinion was divided. At one point, Howell, who is white, ask “What was [King’s] Title? Why should we end the game?” This predictably made matters even more difficult, but the two teams eventually stopped playing. The favored 76ers took a 3-1 series lead.

Russell’s Celtics became the first team in NBA history to overcome such a deficit. They stunned the 76ers in the final three games against Philadelphia and returned to the Finals, where they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers. A year later, they found themselves in the same position again. Lakers owner Jake Kent Cooke also offered a plan for the Lakers’ championship celebration in pregame flyers distributed before Game 7. But Boston won it again, giving Russell the championship number. 11. Until last, he was the only double-digit scorer to play in his last NBA game. To date, he is the only player-coach to win an NBA championship.

It didn’t matter, because by that point, Bill Russell the leader was far more important than Bill Russell the basketball player. Whether he’s pitching the concept of bulletin board content as a motivational tactic or leading a racially divided locker room through the assassination of a civil rights leader, Russell is an inspiration to everyone around him. I can come up with the best. He did it with his colleagues. He did it with players who were born long after his career ended.

Circumstances prevented Russell from building a long coaching resume. He left the Seattle Supersonics in 1977. Months later, they would sign Gus Williams and draft Jack Schma, and suddenly Lenny Wilkins had the talent to work with Russell that Russell didn’t. The Sonics won the championship in 1979 with many of the players Russell helped develop in a big way. One of those players, Dennis Johnson, became a Celtic legend in his own right. His last stab at coaching came a decade later in 1987, when he spent less than a season leading a lottery-bound Sacramento Kings team that won just 17 in 58 tries. After that, his coaching career was largely forgotten. When you’re among the greatest players and workers in NBA history, it’s easy for some things to slip through the cracks.

But in 2021, the Basketball Hall of Fame finally recognized Russell’s leadership, making him only the fifth person to be inducted as both a player and coach. Several luminaries, including former President Barack Obama, spoke on his behalf to celebrate the honor. One of her presenters was Charles Barkley, a man she once jokingly flipped out at a different awards show.

When it came time for Russell to speak, he revealed. Simple question he asked himself when Auerbach offered him the job. “Can I coach Bill Russell?” Yes, he could. And whether it’s his own teammates, his future players in Seattle, or a new generation following in his footsteps, he shows he can coach just about anyone.