He was also a prominent civil rights activist, marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, denouncing racial segregation and supporting Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted in the Vietnam War.
“He became a role model when I realized some of the things that scared me and bothered me about race relations in America were things that he addressed,” Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s top all-time scorer, told CNN’s Don Lemon on Monday.
“He gave me a way to speak about it that had all of the elements of trying to make something better, rather than just being angry.
“He really helped me define that in my life and make choices that were better suited to getting positive change rather than just expressing your anger. He was the exact person whose example should be followed in that area.”
Abdul-Jabbar first met Russell aged 14 as a freshman at Power Memorial High School in New York City. The pair went on to form a 60-year friendship, during which Russell inspired Abdul-Jabbar as both a player and an activist.
In the late 1950s, Russell accused the largely-White NBA with purposely excluding Black players, while he was also part of the league’s first all-Black starting lineup in 1964.
“He inspired me to be a better man by handling situations … without giving in to all of the anger and rage that he must have felt,” said Abdul-Jabbar.
“He handled that in a way that really shamed the people who had tried to tell him to find the door and leave the Celtics. He kept winning, the Celtics kept winning. And they kept doing it with a number of Black athletes.”
The former Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers star added that Russell was a “banner holder for pride for Black athletes,” who “never made any of us feel ashamed or not feel proud.”
Russell’s 11 championship victories with the Celtics including eight straight titles between 1959 and 1966; he was named NBA MVP five times and an NBA All-Star 12 times, including during his final two years as a player-coach of the Celtics in 1968 and 1969.
“The vandalism that Bill experienced was just an expression of the anger of people who felt that he should not be given the opportunity to be as successful as he was as an athlete,” said Abdul-Jabbar.
“They resented his success and they wanted to show him that he had a place in society that they did not respect and they were going to put him in his place.
“But Bill was bigger than that and Bill just kept his chin up and kept moving forward. The Celtics kept winning world championships and Bill showed the world what class was all about.”