Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
The Boston Celtics' championship celebration last June was only a few minutes old when Kevin Garnett searched through the crowd on the court and found the man who, 40 years earlier, had felt what he was feeling now. He wrapped Bill Russell in a tight embrace and said, "I hope we made you proud." It was the finest moment of Garnett's career, a moment of accomplishment mixed with humility, and it is no coincidence that it was inspired by Russell. Even now, all these years after his last game, the man who has been called the greatest team player in history is still making other people better.
There are any number of reasons for the Celtics' reclaiming of the NBA throne that once seemed to be their permanent possession -- Danny Ainge's trades for Garnett and Ray Allen, the leadership and determination of Paul Pierce, and the selfless mentality cultivated by coach Doc Rivers among them -- but Russell's quiet influence should not be overlooked. He was Garnett's mentor, his muse, and without him who knows if KG would have been the galvanizing force the Celtics needed? "You may have to put your arms around a couple of guys and take them with you," Russell said to Garnett before the Finals, referring to the championship journey. "You can't drag them -- you have to take them with you."
Give Garnett credit for absorbing the advice, unlike many multi-millionaire athletes who might have dismissed the words of an old-school star who retired before they were even born. Garnett's respect for Russell was deep and genuine, and he seemed to want to win the title as much to validate Russell's faith in him as anything else.
It's not surprising that Russell saw himself in Garnett, a sinewy, intense, goateed big man, just as Russell was 40 years ago when he led the Celtics to the championship. The difference was that the 1968 title was Russell's 10th in 12 years, while KG had never won a ring before last season. Russell was intent on helping Garnett fill that void in his career, by any means necessary. "I think you'll win two or three of them," he told Garnett. "If you don't, and I see you playing the way you should play, I'll share one of mine with you."
Perhaps Russell made that offer knowing he would never need to make good on it, or perhaps it was his way of saying he considered Garnett a worthy Celtic, a player capable of joining the franchise's championship lineage. Whatever his reasons, he said precisely the right things to help nudge Garnett, and by extension the Celtics, toward the franchise's 17th title.
Forty years ago Russell won SI's Sportsman of the Year award for leading Boston to one of the championships that built the Celtic tradition. He didn't lead them this time, but he gently pushed one of the men who did, and for that, he is just as deserving as he was four decades ago. You get the feeling, though, that if Russell were handed the award again, he would call Garnett up to share it with him. That's only fitting, because the Celtics big men past and present were clearly in this together. The rewards of 2008 should be theirs to share.