The day Bill Russell roasted me at McClymonds


Roast. He got me.

The interaction made a perfect entrance into my og told me series, a photographic essay devoted to documenting the wisdom of older black men in my community. It wasn’t that he had said anything deep, necessarily. That was what he showed me: this simply comical interaction from a person with so many badges of honor is a mark of humility (which served me with a little side of humiliation).

A school security guard and Bill Russell are laughing. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

DDuring this stop at McClymonds High School, he visited classrooms, media production spaces and sports facilities. I followed the campus security guards who transformed into little boys in his presence. The school administrators laughed. Noisy students have become shy. Russell interacted with all of them.

With the help of a student, a teacher and artist named Rose Marr had just painted a portrait of Russell. She was visibly excited when she showed it to him. He smiled and laughed, asked her about another artist, then mentioned that he was that artist’s first teacher.

Artist and educator Rose Marr meets Mr. Bill Russell for the first time.
Artist and educator Rose Marr meets Bill Russell for the first time. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Most memorable was Russell’s reaction to the wall inside the center used for after-school programs. That’s where I led a class. A chord list for students who occupied this space included things like “Step Up, Step Back” and “Clean Up After Yourself.”

Do you ever laugh because you hear someone else’s laughter? That’s what happened when I heard the laughter that erupted from Russell as he read the “No loot on duty” rule.

Agreements made by students in the after-school space, including
Agreements made by students in the after-school space, including “No Booty on Duty”. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

That’s what I kept thinking when I read the news that Bill Russell passed away at the age of 88 yesterday morning, a sad day for sports fans, social justice advocates and the people of the Bay Area. I keep smiling and laughing thinking about the argument we had in West Oakland. It’s often mentioned, but they don’t speak sufficient about Bill Russell’s sense of humor.

Russell’s greatness is well documented. Graduated from McClymonds High School in Oakland, which won two NCAA national championships as a gift from USF and an Olympic gold medal in 1956 with Team USA. He would win 11 NBA championships, become the first African-American coach in professional sports, and receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

Rapper, producer and educator Azure meets Mr. Bill Russell in the McClymonds audio program studio.
Rapper, producer and educator Azure meets Bill Russell in the McClymonds audio program studio. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Russell’s efforts to fight racism in America are widely known. He was present at Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. He led a basketball camp in Mississippi after the assassination of Medgar Evers. strong supporter of Colin Kaepernick and a critic of the American police, following the murder of George Floyd Russell wrote an essay on his lifelong battle against racism.

The photo of the meeting known as Muhammad Ali Summit or Cleveland Summit– a lecture by famous professional athletes, including Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – is one of the most iconic images in sports history.

But the image of Russell return the bird to Charles Barkley at an NBA awards show in 2018 gives you a look at the guy I followed on camera for a few minutes in 2012.

Inside an elevator with a school security guard and Mr. Bill Russell at McClymonds High School.
Inside an elevator with a school security guard and Bill Russell at McClymonds High School. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

I ride in an elevator with a human who represents American history. Before becoming part of one of the greatest professional sports dynasties of all time, he was part of the Great Migration.

After a childhood in West Monroe, Louisiana, he moved with his family to West Oakland and into a high school environment that produced athletes like Vada Pinson Jr. (former MLB player), Curt Flood (former MLB and free agency defender) and Frank Robinson (MLB superstar and MLB’s first African-American manager).

Bill Russell is given a tour by students from McClymonds High School.
Bill Russell is given a tour by students from McClymonds High School. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Names like that were on a wall of the Distinguished McClymonds Graduates that wasn’t too far from where the “No Booty on Duty” deals were listed. Funny thing is, I don’t remember Russell’s reaction to seeing the names on that wall, not even his. But I’ll never forget how the whole school reacted to seeing one of the names on that wall in real life.

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