Russell honored for his pursuit of equality

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Russell honored for his pursuit of equality

By A.Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com

WASHINGTON Even when President Barack Obama needed Bill Russell to scoot down a bit to drape his neck with the prestigious Medal of Freedom, Russell's 6-foot-9 frame stood head and shoulders above those in attendance.

It was a fitting image for a man whose play, whose purpose in life, often stood above others in such a way that changed both the NBA and America as a whole.

He was -- he is -- a living legend.

And while he has often been recognized and praised for his prowess as a basketball player, those who know him best understand there's so much more to the man.

NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown was invited to the White House ceremony as a guest of Russell, along with baseball legend Joe Morgan.

"The best I can say is it's a great honor that they recognize the man that he is," Brown told CSNNE.com. "But I already knew. If I had to wait until this day to know that, I'd be in terrible shape."

Man.

Not a Boston Celtics legend.

Not an NBA Hall of Famer.

But a man.

The never-ending pursuit to be treated as a person and not just a basketball player would serve as the driving force behind Russell's ascension into the conscience of America as the Civil Rights Movement steadily gained momentum.

"Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men," said Obama. "He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King; he stood by Muhammed Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players, and made possible the success of so many who would follow."

And yes, you can add Obama to those who believe that a permanent fixture of Russell's likeness needs to be erected somewhere in Boston.

"I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to be Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man," said President Obama.

NBA commissioner David Stern was among those in attendance to witness Russell being bestowed the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to civilian.

"It's so well-deserved," Stern told CSNNE.com. "Not just as an athlete, but a fighter for the rights for all in America. It was thrilling to be here."

Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) grew up watching Russell lead the Celtics to championship after championship, both as a player and as the first African-American coach of a major professional team in America.

"He's a legend," Brown told CSNNE.com. "The things he did for the Celtics, the city of Boston and for all mankind."

Indeed, basketball as the platform helped catapult Russell's efforts towards racial equality.

In both basketball and race relations, Russell had one agenda - - victory.

And in both, he would do it his way.

"He was just himself and he believed that the evidence was on the court, the way he carried himself," former Celtics great and Russell teammate, Satch Sanders. "So he never worried about the impression he left on other people."

During his playing days, Russell was criticized at times for not practicing as much as other players.

Sanders explained why those missed practices actually helped the Celtics.

"People haven't addressed this subject, but what he would do is disrupt the practice, blocking shots," Sanders said. "Let's face it. We're trying to go through plays, get the timing down, he's lurking."

So when players would complain or gripe about him blocking their shots, Russell's response?

"He'd say, 'I gotta keep my game sharp,' " Sanders recalled.

Keeping an edge is something current Celtic Kevin Garnett is known for throughout the NBA.

He's also known as a player who holds Russell in high esteem, even before he became a Celtic.

"When I think of Russell, I think of transcending," Garnett said. "If you take Bill Russell out, the young bigs don't exist. You know, if you take someone out of history a lot of us are not even here. Not only did he transcend on the court, but off the court. Being pro-righteous in what he believed in and speaking up and standing up for that right. Different times back in the day, you know?"

Different times indeed.

Russell was at the forefront of a generation that was about bringing change to the status quo, efforts that opened the doors for players of future generations to benefit from.

Garnett recognizes this.

"I respect a lot of the old guys just because of what they went through in order for us to be here today," Garnett said.

Celtics guard Ray Allen recalled crossing paths with Russell (who has a home in Seattle) when Allen played for the Seattle Supersonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder).

"He's so funny and interesting because he'll tell you a story, and he's got a lot of stories," Allen said. "No matter if the story is funny or not, he's going to laugh and since he laughs you laugh and it ends up being a great story he told. I've always enjoyed talking to him because I always walk away with a laugh."

Off the court was about the only time those close to Russell would see his sense of humor.

"We had an awful lot of fun, an awful lot of laughs," Sanders said. "He had that demeanor, not talking or wanting anybody around him. But off the court, that's the Russ I really miss. He's fun; joking. You could hear that laugh. We had a lot of laughs."

And on Tuesday, Russell was all smiles, surrounded by the 14 other Medal of Freedom honorees.

He was the only one among them who claimed basketball as his profession.

But as we've come to find with Russell, he was more than just a basketball player.

"Whenever someone looks up at all 6-9 of Bill Russell -- I just did -- I always feel small next to him," said Obama, who is 6-1. "And asks, 'Are you a basketball player?' Surprisingly, he gets this more than you think, this question. He says, 'No.' He says, 'That's what I do, that's not what I am. I'm not a basketball player. I am a man who plays basketball.' "

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached atsblakely@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

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Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Avery Bradley was a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago. And Al Horford has been among the league’s best interior defenders for a number of years.

But as talented defensively as they may be, the Celtics are still learning how to play with each other as well as off of one another.

Injuries have slowed down the chemistry developing as quickly as some might expect. Horford missed nine games due to a concussion, and another game due to wife giving birth to their second child, Alia Horford.

And in Boston’s 107-106 win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, defensive chemistry -- not only among Horford and Bradley, but with all of the players -- remains a work in progress for sure.

Boston had a number of defensive issues in the first half which factored in the Sixer shooting 46.1 percent from the field while shooting 9-for-18 from 3-point range.

But the second half was an entirely different story as Boston’s defense picked up his intensity and focus level which would prove to be just enough to beat a scrappy Sixers team.

The Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season currently have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland (13-5) and Toronto (14-6). 

And while the players point to a handful of games that they felt they gave away, Avery Bradley reminds all that the success of this team this season has for the most part come with key players out of the mix or limited in some capacity.

“We haven’t played that many games with the full roster,” Bradley told reporters after the win. “We’re still learning how to play with each other.”

Bradley pointed out a moment in Saturday’s victory where a miscommunication between him and Horford led to a defensive miscue.

Boston has had similar mistakes made on offense this season, too.

“We haven’t really been in pick-and-roll that much,” Bradley said. “Every single game we need to improve.”

And that improvement has to continue evolving on the defensive side of things for this team to achieve its goals this season which include being among the last teams standing in the East.

Doing that will likely mean Boston re-establishing itself as a defensive force, something that should come with time and experience playing with each other.

Horford, who signed a four-year, $113 million deal with Boston in the offseason, says it’s an ongoing process for all involved.

“I have to learn to play with our concepts, the guys have to learn to play with me,” Horford told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We just have to make sure we keep playing the right way, be more consistent with that. I feel like we’re getting better but there’s still some work that we need to do.”

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

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Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

The pressure that comes with a tight game in the fourth quarter can be a weighty proposition for some NBA players.

Then there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas who continues to save his best work for the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s 107-106 win at Philadelphia had yet another Thomas-like finish for the Celtics as the 5-foot-9 guard was at his most dominant state in the game’s final minutes.

Thomas finished with a season high-tying 37 points which included a stretch in the fourth in which he scored 12 straight.

“I just love the fourth quarter,” Thomas told reporters following the win. “I just want to win. Whether it’s making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it’s about making the right play. I get ultra- aggressive in that fourth quarter. That’s what I’ve always done.”

And his teammates appreciate how Thomas elevates his play in the game’s most pivotal moments.

“A lot of the credit is to Isaiah, how he was able to finish the game tonight,” said Avery Bradley. “He was able to make shots when we needed him to.”

And while Thomas knows his shots won’t fall all the time down the stretch, his fourth quarter mentality does provide him with a level of confidence that no matter what the defense does to him or what the score may be, he can swing the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.

“Some guys get a little tight, they get a little timid (in the fourth quarter),” Thomas said. “I embrace it. I want to be great. I want to be somebody my teammates can call on when the game is close.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Saturday night’s game.

STARS

Isaiah Thomas: There was no more dominant player on Saturday night than Thomas. He finished with a game-high 37 points along with seven assists.

Dario Saric: It was a breakout game for the 22-year-old rookie who led the Sixers with 21 points as well as 12 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Both his points and rebound totals tied his career highs in those categories.

STUDS

Avery Bradley: Boston’s surge towards victory did not kick in until the third quarter which is when Bradley elevated his play offensively. In the third he scored 10 of his 20 points on the night, to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

Ersan Illyasova: He finished with 18 points which included a pair of three-pointers in the closing seconds of the game. He also grabbed six rebounds and two assists.

DUDS

Celtics first half defense: There wasn’t much to like about Boston defensively in the first half. The Celtics struggled to take away or limit Philadelphia’s only strength Saturday night which was three-point shooting. The Sixers nailed nine of their 18 three-point attempts in the first half in addition to hurting the Celtics’ transition defense which gave up seven fast-break points to Philly compared to Boston scoring just one point in transition.