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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When Bill Belichick was in his second season as New England Patriots coach in 2001, Bill Russell — the Boston Celtics great who won 11 NBA championships — visited the team.
Russell’s death Sunday at age 88 prompted Belichick to reflect on that visit, and current Patriots players to reflect on Russell’s legacy.
“It was great,” Belichick said. “Bill is a great person. His comments about leadership, teamwork and selflessness are all outstanding.”
Belichick’s close friendship with football great Jim Brown led to his connection with Russell, which set the stage for the visit in 2001. This week, the Patriots’ two longest-tenured players — Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty — shared how Russell impacted their lives.
“It’s really hard to put into words what Bill Russell meant not only to this city, but to professional sports, has meant to black athletes, and just the progress that we’ve seen in this country over the last 60 years or around there,” Slater said.
“When I think of Bill Russell, I don’t necessarily think of the championships. Or the Celtics and the victory, which is a legacy that speaks for itself. I think of what he did for black athletes. I’m a beneficiary of the actions of men and women like Bill Russell who are willing to go out on a limb and stand up for black athletes and black Americans, and push for change, push for equality.”
Among other things, Slater referred to how Russell boycotted a 1961 exhibition game to protest discrimination.
For McCourty, who describes himself as a “huge basketball fan,” playing pro football in New England drew him closer to Russell.
“When you come here and just learn his story, all you know at first is, ‘Bill Russell, a champion and winner.’ But just his willingness and vulnerability to be very open about what he went through and wanting change ,” McCourty said.
“As an athlete who is going to play in this area, I got a lot of inspiration and motivation from how he looked at things. I think the way he paved for black athletes to be successful in this city, and sports in general; I think about his life … he wasn’t just a great athlete, but he was a better person. All of us here, we aspire to be like Bill Russell.”
In an interview with Sirius XM NFL Radio, Belichick shared more details about the time Russell visited the Patriots.
“He’s a big Patriots fan and gave us a lot of support and he was just a great person to talk to. I’ve learned an incredible amount from Bill Russell. Very fortunate to have had a relationship with him,” Belichick said.
“Obviously he was a great player and there was a lot of attention on him, but how he tried to deflect that and improve other players, how he helps other players play better, what he could do to help his teammates.
“Ultimately his role changed from player to coach to a combination of both, and so he talked a lot about how being a manager – and how being a coach combined with being a player – was really the ultimate in trying to to help teams.
“And when you have veteran players on every team like we had then and still have now; how those players are more than just good players, they’re mentors, they’re leaders. They have to find ways to help every other player play better and still maintain their level of play. And that’s what the great players do. And we’ve had a lot of them, but Bill really put it into great perspective.”