Bill Russell’s No 6 jersey retired across NBA, in 1st for league

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 both a player and a coach.

Russell, the league’s first Black coach, becomes the first player to have his number retired leaguewide.

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

A superstar basketball player in the 1950s and 1960s, Russell was selected as an All-Star a dozen times in his 13 years with the Celtics, where he became one of the sport’s leading voices for civil rights and social justice in the United States.

The Celtics had previously retired his jersey in 1972.

Players who currently wear number 6 — including LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers — may continue doing so. But the number cannot be issued again, the league said.

All NBA players will wear a patch on the right shoulder of their jerseys this season, the league said, and every NBA court will display a clover-shaped logo with the number 6 on the sideline near the scorer’s table.

LeBron James jumps by the basket
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James will be able to continue wearing his number 6 jersey, but the number can not be issued again to players not already using it (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

The Boston Celtics have “separate and unique recognition for him on their uniforms” planned, the NBA said.

Russell died on July 31 at the age of 88. He was the most prolific winner in NBA history, an 11-time champion during a 13-year career — winning the last two of those titles as a player-coach — and the first Black coach in any of the major US pro sports to win a championship.

He marched with Martin Luther King Jr, stood with Muhammad Ali and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

And having his number retired leaguewide puts him in a very exclusive club.

Major League Baseball permanently retired number 42 — in honour of Jackie Robinson, who broke the big league’s colour barrier — with the understanding that those who were wearing that number could continue to do so. Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees was the last in the majors to wear number 42, doing so through his final season in 2013.

The National Hockey League, upon Wayne Gretzky’s retirement in 1999, said his number 99 would be retired leaguewide in honour of that sport’s all-time scoring leader.

And now, Russell gets the same treatment. It also seems fitting that he and Robinson — both barrier breakers — are linked again. Russell called Robinson a hero, once saying that “he showed me the way to be a man in professional sports”.

Robinson, clearly, held Russell in high esteem as well. Rachel Robinson, his widow, asked Russell to be a pallbearer at her husband’s funeral in 1972.

Boston Celtics' great Bill Russell stands with his Presidential Medal of Freedom
Bill Russell wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to him by Barack Obama [Danny Moloshok/File Photo

“This is a momentous honour reserved for one of the greatest champions to ever play the game,” NBPA Executive Director Tamika Tremaglio said. “Bill’s actions on and off the court throughout the course of his life helped to shape generations of players for the better and for that, we are forever grateful. We are proud to continue the celebration of his life and 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 — most notably James, who has alternated between 6 and 23 throughout his NBA career.

Nobody has worn number 6 for the Celtics since Russell’s final season, 1968-69.

Russell is one of 12 players currently enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame who wore 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.