Bill Russell Speaks From the Heart at Oakland Gala

By Lateefah Edmondson

He’s tall, lanky, and modest. He avoided gangs in West Oakland and refuses to sign autographs.  Last night, like a true star, he stood tall, really tall: William “Bill” Russell was recognized in Oakland for the very first time for his accomplishments.

As the gala kicked off at the Convention Center, over 150 people took their seats.  Many well-known people lauded Russell, including ex-NFL player Jim Brown, Oakland mayor Jean Quan, and baseball hall of famer Joe L. Morgan.

Most memorable was when Bill Russell himself finally rose to speak.

With dignity and without notes, Russell recounted how he approached his counselor at McClymonds to ask why he wasn’t enrolled in any college prep classes. She told him, “Why do YOU need college prep classes. YOU’RE not going to COLLEGE.” So he made his own schedule and learned at his own pace.

Russell addressed gangs and violence, vowing to help change Oakland’s culture of violence. He then told the story of his first interaction with gang members. When a gang approached him, Russell admitted that he was afraid. But one gang member confronted the others, “Leave him alone. He’s playing basketball and trying to go somewhere with his life.”

Junior varsity cut him at McClymonds. When he looked at the sheet announcing who made the team, his name wasn’t on the list. Then he learned that the varsity coach at McClymonds High School wanted him to play on the team.  The coach showed him how to act, speak, and not be nervous around very important people.

It was clear to me that having a great role model had an impact on Russell, who went on to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom last month.

Russell went beyond becoming the best NBA player of his time and great alumnus from McClymonds. He contributes quietly: he established a scholarship for which only McClymonds students can apply, but that does not bear his name.

“ It was a great experience how history came back to help the future generation,” said senior Taylor Murray, 18, who attended the event. “ I learned that Bill Russell is hard working, respectful, and very well respected”.

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