BOSTON (CBS) — President Obama announced yesterday that Celtics immortal Bill Russell will be among the next group of recipients of the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
The president could not have made a better choice.
Perhaps you already know that Bill Russell led the Celtics to a string of eight straight championships, a record unmatched in the history of professional sports. He won at every level, won as both a player and a coach. He is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest players in basketball history; for my money, he is far and away the greatest, because of his astonishing ability and intelligence, his consistency, and his capacity to deliver in the clutch.
But Russell is getting the Medal of Freedom for much more than what he did on the court. He is a truly great American in some very profound ways.
If ever there was someone with a right to retreat into bitterness, it’s Russell, born into poverty and an environment of vicious racism. But while he struggled at times with white backlash against a trailblazing black man, again and again he rose above it to become a role model of striving and success. Snubbed for an honor he deserved as a star college player, he chose to ignore individual honors and focus on team play, a decision that made him such an amazing winner. He repeatedly turned ignorant criticism into a motivator for excellence, and became a brave and outspoken advocate for civil rights.
And just in the last few years he moved beyond the lingering anger of mistreatment he suffered here in Boston to embrace us and the deep respect we have for him.
Perseverance, courage, excellence, forgiveness, principle. If those aren’t the qualities we most honor in our fellow Americans, I don’t know what else they would be. Bill Russell is a well-deserving recipient of the Medal of Freedom. Here’s hoping the award will inform those who didn’t know about him of the presence of a living hero.
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