Russell center stage at Boston AARP event

Russell center stage at Boston AARP event
May 9, 2014, 5:30 pm
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BOSTON — As the four Boston Sports legends began to line up behind a curtain, the first to make their way on to the stage was Bill Russell.

It was fitting when you consider Russell's career on so many levels has been defined by him stepping out, front and center.

Russell was a panelist at the AARP's bi-annual Life@50+ National Event and Expo at the Boston Convention and Civic Center.

Known for his timing on the court and when it comes to telling a story, Russell eloquently weaved a handful of tales to the attentive salt-and-pepper haired crowd, ranging from his time as a youth growing up in the then-segregated South, to attending school with whites in Oakland, Calif., and of course, his 13 seasons as a player with the Celtics.

"My career playing with the Celtics was the best time of my adult life. I have had an adventure. That's what I call my life," said Russell who was joined on stage by Winthrop native and captain of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" U.S. Men's Olympic hockey team Mike Eruzione, former Red Sox Pitcher Luis Tiant and ex-Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan.

When introduced by the moderator (James "JB" Brown of CBS' "The NFL Today" and Showtime's "Inside the NFL"), Russell, 80, said he was happy to be there.

"I'm glad to be anywhere," he quipped.

Indeed, the journey that is Russell's life is one filled with tragedy (his mother died when he was 12 years old), triumphs (championships at every level) and a mix of tales that have captivated audiences for decades.

Growing up in the 1930s in Monroe, La., which, like most of the south at that time, was segregated.

Russell recalled how his parents made a point of keeping him away from white people.

"My father decided it was dangerous for him to stay where we were, so he left," Russell said.

He found work on the other side of the country in Oakland.

"And as soon as he got a job and a house, he sent for us," Russell said. "So I grew up in Oakland, California. And going to school for the first time with white kids was a real adventure. You didn't know how or what to say to them."

Even though he went to school with whites and played with them in college, there was some uncertainty as to how he would fit in with a Celtics team that at the time was predominately white.

"When I got to Boston, most of the guys on the Celtics didn't know I had a voice," Russell recalled. "Because I didn't say anything."

But in time, Russell came to realize that he had something special with this team and the culture that they were trying to build.

"I found out that I found a bunch of friends here," Russell said. "I also found out the most important thing in living a good life is the friends you acquire."

And friendship is something that Russell does not take for granted, either.

"I have a finite number of friends," he said. "It's a set number."

So what happens when you get a new friend?

"Someone's got to go," he says which brings a loud chorus of chuckles from the audience.

He would continue telling tale after tale, including why he never talked to his kids about playing basketball.

"I was kind of egotistical about that," Russell admitted. "I thought talking to them about basketball would be the same as Einstein talking to them about math. They were going to wait until later for that."

However, one of his sons decided to challenge him to a game of basketball. After turning him down several times, Russell eventually relented.

The game was played to 21, and Russell had a commanding 19-0 lead which is when he told his son that he'd let him score twice.

And the final score, Russell said, was 21-2.

"First thing he said to me was I didn't know you were that good," Russell chuckled.

It was a humbling loss, but Russell did point out to his son one positive.

"You scored on Bill Russell, twice."