The National Basketball Association (NBA) will retire the number 6 jersey worn by Boston Celtics great and civil rights icon Bill Russell, who died late last month.
The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) made the announcement Thursday, permanently retiring the number worn by the 11-time champion, who was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach.
Russell, the league’s first black coach, becomes the first player to have his number retired league-wide.
“Bill Russell’s unprecedented success on the court and his pioneering civil rights activism deserve to be honored in a unique and historic way,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “Permanently retiring his number 6 on all NBA teams ensures that Bill’s transcendent career will always be recognized.”
A superstar basketball player in the 1950s and 1960s, Russell was selected as an All-Star a dozen times during his 13 years with the Celtics, where he became one of the sport’s leading voices for rights. civil and social justice in the United States.
The Celtics previously retired his jersey in 1972.
Players who currently wear number 6 – including LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers – can continue to do so. But the number can no longer be issued, the league said.
All NBA players will wear a crest on the right shoulder of their jersey this season, the league said, and every NBA court will display a cloverleaf logo with the number 6 on the sideline near the table of markers.
The Boston Celtics have provided “distinct and unique recognition for him on their uniforms,” the NBA said.
Russell died on July 31 at the age of 88. He was the most prolific winner in NBA history, 11 times champion during a 13-year career – winning the last two of those titles as a player-coach – and the first black coach in the one of America’s premier professional sports to win a championship.
He walked with Martin Luther King Jr, stood with Muhammad Ali and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
And the retirement of his league-wide number puts him at a very exclusive club.
Major League Baseball has permanently retired the number 42 – in honor of Jackie Robinson, who broke the big league color barrier – with the understanding that those who wore the number could continue to do so. Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees was the last of the majors to wear number 42, doing so until his final season in 2013.
The National Hockey League, on the retirement of Wayne Gretzky in 1999, said his number 99 would be retired league-wide in honor of the sport’s all-time leading scorer.
And now Russell is getting the same treatment. It also seems fitting that he and Robinson – both barrier breakers – are bonding again. Russell called Robinson a hero, once saying that “he showed me the way to be a man in professional sports”.
Robinson, clearly, also held Russell in high regard. Rachel Robinson, his widow, asked Russell to be a pallbearer at her husband’s funeral in 1972.
“It’s a momentous honor reserved for one of the greatest champions to ever play the game,” said NBPA General Manager Tamika Tremaglio. “Bill’s actions on and off the pitch throughout his life have helped shape generations of players for the better and for that we are eternally grateful to him. We are proud to continue to celebrate his life and his legacy alongside the league.”
There have been more than 250 players in NBA history to wear a number 6 jersey, including 24 who did so in at least one game last season – including James, who alternated between 6 and 23 throughout. throughout his NBA career.
No one has worn number 6 for the Celtics since Russell’s final season, 1968-69.
Russell is one of 12 players currently in the Basketball Hall of Fame who have worn number 6 at some point in their careers. The others are: Julius Erving, Patrick Ewing, Ben Wallace, Don Barksdale, Chuck Cooper, Larry Costello, Tom Gola, Cliff Hagan, Alex Hannum, Buddy Jeanette and Neil Johnston.