Sun, December 03, 2023

Thoughts from the General: Stories from the remarkable life of Bill Russell

Perry M. Smith, Jr.

I will never forget the day that basketball great Bill Russell visited the Air Force Academy. He was serving the U.S. State Department as a special envoy to Africa. The year was 1973. He had retired from playing basketball and would soon move on to full-time coaching.

When he arrived at the Political Science Department his handshake was memorable. Bill’s hand seemed to be twice the size of mine; it surrounded mine. He visited a class with about 20 cadets who were taking a course in international relations. An introduction was not necessary – every cadet knew exactly who he was. He was asked to share insights from his recent travels throughout Africa.

Later that day, he spoke to 1,000 cadets as well as hundreds of staff and faculty. His stories of overcoming prejudice and adversity were inspiring.


What impressed us all about Bill Russell was his modesty, his humbleness, and how soft-spoken he was. There was not a hint of arrogance or hubris. But Russell’s success was beyond compare. Just think of it, the Boston Celtics won 11 out of 13 NBA championships during his playing days.

Russell explained that it was a pleasure to represent America during his visits to African nations. He reminded the cadets how important America was to the world and he thanked them for their commitment to public service.

Bill Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. (Photo via Wikimedia)

During his long life (he died this past week at age 88) he provided young people with a fine role model. He may best be compared to Neil Armstrong, Jimmy Doolittle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Elizabeth Dole. I had the pleasure of spending some time with each of them. They all stood out for their competence, compassion, and commitment to worthy goals. Like Bill Russell, all had a great sense of humor – being with them was just plain fun.

Unlike outstanding athletes like O.J. Simpson, Deshaun Watson, Michael Vick, and others who lost their way, Bill Russell lived a life of quiet dignity. He was devoted to the cause of civil rights, marched with Martin Luther King, and tried to avoid the limelight. At 6-feet 11-inches, avoiding the limelight was not easy.

Many who are reading this short article are sports fans. Georgia sits at the epicenter of sports in America. How fortunate we are to be surrounded by excellence in professional baseball, college football, and golf. No state in America comes close to the collective achievements of the Atlanta Braves, the Georgia Bulldogs, and Augusta National.

Perry Smith’s most successful book is Rules and Tools for Leaders. Now in its 4th edition, this book has passed the 350,000 mark.

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