CANTON, Mass. – As the longest-tenured player on the Celtics, Marcus Smart has been in Boston long enough to appreciate what Bill Russell meant to the team, the city and the country.
“We’ve heard things like ‘pioneer,’ ‘trailblazer,’” Smart said Monday while wearing a patch honoring the Celtics Hall of Famer who died this summer. “To mention, you know, Bill Russell and the impact that he brought to this game is undeniable.”
The centerpiece of the Celtics dynasty that won 11 championships in 13 years, Russell is being honored this season not just for his unmatched success on the court but for a lifetime commitment to civil rights. The NBA has announced that it will retire his No. 6 league-wide, and every player will wear a black No. 6 patch on his jersey.
The Celtics have other tributes planned, with two nights set aside to honor Russell’s legacy, including the Oct. 18 opener. They have painted the No. 6 in the free throw lane.
"The presence that Bill Russell had — not only on the court, but in the community — it’s something that will always be present, and he’ll always have a legacy because of that,” Celtics forward Grant Williams said, adding that Boston was his grandfather's favorite team because of Russell. “I’m fortunate to be playing for this organization.”
Players who are already wearing No. 6 can keep it, and Nuggets center DeAndre Jordan was among those who said he would do so to honor Russell’s legacy. (Major League Baseball did the same in 1997 when it retired Jackie Robinson's No. 42 across the AL and NL, and Yankees closer Mariano Rivera continued to wear it until he retired in 2013.)
Bulls guard Alex Caruso said he looked into switching his uniform No. 6 this season but was told he had to keep it because he is in the top 75 in jersey sales. Caruso wore No. 4 with the Lakers but Chicago has retired it for Jerry Sloan and No. 6 was the “best-looking number in the single digits that was left.”
“Obviously, I want to do nothing but honor him and his legacy and what he stood for because he’s one of the pioneers of racial advocacy for the game of basketball in general and just all-around great person,” he said. “I don’t know anybody that talks about him or knew him that had anything negative to say.”
In addition to the jersey patch, teams will also have a No. 6 on their courts near the scorer’s tables.
“I’m glad we get to remember him like this,” said Memphis Grizzlies big man Jaren Jackson Jr. “He’s definitely watching over the game, watching over our jerseys like, ‘Yep.’ It’s special man. A lot of rings for him.”
It has been a tumultuous offseason for the Celtics, who were two wins from winning an unprecedented 18th NBA championship last season. Over the summer, newly signed free agent Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL and was lost for the season, and center Robert Williams III also needed surgery and won’t be available for the opener.
Jaylen Brown was mentioned in trade talks for All-Star Kevin Durant, leaving him to doubt the team’s commitment to him. And then, just three days before the start of training camp, coach Ime Udoka was suspended for the entire season.
Brown said it was important to remember Russell’s struggles against racism in the 1960s and understand the team’s current turmoil pales in comparison.
“Thinking about his legacy and what he stood for and the amount of adversity he went through is nothing like we have now,” Brown said.
AP Sports Writers Andrew Seligman, Teresa Walker and Kyle Hightower contributed to this story.