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NBA to retire No. 6 league-wide to honor Celtics great Bill Russell

NBA to retire No. 6 league-wide to honor Celtics great Bill Russell

Throughout the entire NBA, the jersey No. 6 will one day belong only to one man.

The league announced Thursday afternoon that it will retire No. 6 for all NBA teams in honor of Bill Russell, the Boston Celtics great who won 11 championships and was a civil rights pioneer. Russell died last month at 88, and the league’s tribute puts his legacy on par with Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 in baseball.

Current players who wear No. 6, including the Lakers’ LeBron James, will be allowed to continue wearing the number. No new players will wear it until it is Russell’s alone. In the coming season, all players will wear a No. 6 patch on their right shoulder, and a No. 6 on a clover-shaped logo will appear on the sideline near the scorer’s table.

Russell’s jersey is the first to be retired throughout the league. It is befitting of a man who was the face of the league’s most dominant dynastic run in the 1950s and 60s, who became the first Black head coach in a major American sports league and who campaigned for civil rights in an era of tremendous racial strife.

“Bill Russell’s unparalleled success on the court and pioneering civil rights activism deserve to be honored in a unique and historic way,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a league-issued statement.  “Permanently retiring his No. 6 across every NBA team ensures that Bill’s transcendent career will always be recognized.”

In Southern California, Russell will long be remembered as a tormentor: Seven of his titles with Boston (including both as head coach) came against the Lakers. But Russell was also the first to unlock facets of the game as an athletic, shot-deflecting center – his defensive prowess is widely considered the biggest pillar of the Celtic’s 11 titles in 13 years. A five-time league MVP, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame both as a player and coach.

Russell was also a critic of racial inequality in the United States when Black athletes had much at stake. A native of Louisiana who knew the sting of discrimination well as a child and even upon achieving sports stardom, Russell marched on Washington in 1963, notably ran integrated basketball camps in a time of segregation, and was one of the most powerful figures on the Cleveland Summit in 1967.

In his later years, Russell was showered with accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, and the Finals MVP trophy was named after him in 2009. In 2020 after Kobe Bryant’s death, Russell memorably set aside the coastal rivalry and wore purple and gold in Bryant’s honor — a well-received gesture of grace.

After his death, Lakers governor Jeanie Buss tweeted: “Bill Russell was a treasure as a player, coach and especially as a human being.”

There were 25 players who wore No. 6 last season, including former Lakers Alex Caruso (Bulls), Lou Williams (Hawks) and Lance Stephenson (Pacers). James has worn No. 6 (his Miami Heat number) for the last two seasons as a Laker after starting his Los Angeles tenure with his Cleveland number 23.


Press Enterprise