Greatness doesn’t define careers

By David Mullen

On July 31, NBA legend Bill Russell died peacefully at his home in the Seattle suburb with his wife, Jeannine, by his side. He was 88 years old.

On Aug. 2, legendary sports announcer Vin Scully died peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with his family by his side. He was 94 years old. 

At first blush, it may seem like such fateful news just days apart should sadden the sports world. But instead, the news should be cause for retrospection, appreciation and celebration. One would be hard pressed to find two sports figures that spanned across so many generations, were so influential in their respective sports and brought so much joy to fans everywhere. They were masters of their crafts.

It would seem like Russell and Scully couldn’t be more different. But there is more to their story. 

In the early 1950s, Russell was a gangly, but growing, 6-foot, 5 inch sophomore attending McClymonds High School after his family had migrated west to Oakland when he was 9 years old. His father Charlie wanted to raise boys Charlie, Jr. and Bill without the segregation and racism that permeated throughout West Monroe, La.

Despite his height, Russell was not considered athletic enough to play on the highly competitive varsity basketball team. The shy boy was spending as much time at the public library as in the gymnasium. He was growing mentally as he was growing physically. George Powles, head coach of the McClymonds Warriors basketball team and later the baseball coach of my high school team in Oakland, had no room on the bench for Russell but saw potential. Although he didn’t start until his senior year in high school, Russell was learning the nuances of basketball.

On a barnstorming tour with other high school basketball players, Russell flourished. His approach to defense was physical and cerebral. He knew he didn’t have to score to have an impact. But because of his limited high school experience and despite having grown to the size of a college center, Russell would get one scholarship offer, to play college basketball across the Bay at the private Jesuit college, the University of San Francisco (USF). 

Russell continued to focus on defense, footwork, angles and shot blocking. As fate would have it, at USF he roomed with defensive guard K.C. Jones, later his teammate with the Boston Celtics. In his senior year at USF, Russell averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds a game which was unheard of at any level. Little USF, located in the center of San Francisco, won the NCAA Championship in 1955 and 1956. The Dons won 55 games in a row. Russell also won a Gold Medal on the 1956 U.S. Olympic basketball team.

Russell still experienced injustice, especially when playing for the predominantly white Boston Celtics. But he used his platform as a star professional athlete to champion civil rights causes in the 1960s.

Growing up in the Bronx not far from the New York Giants home of the Polo Grounds, Scully was first enamored by the roar of the crowd. He knew from the age 8 that he wanted to be a baseball announcer, telling the nuns at Fordham Prep school of his dream. His father had passed away when Scully was 4, so he was raised at the ballpark listening to games on the radio, especially New York announcer Red Barber.

Scully loved baseball but realized that he didn’t have the skill to play at a high level. He continued his education at the private Jesuit college Fordham University, announced college sports on the campus radio station and took any job in front of a microphone he could muster. His clarity of voice and ability to paint a verbal landscape was as vibrant as his sharp jawline and red hair.

While a Giants fan growing up, Scully’s first break came with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Barber heard a tape of young Scully and was impressed. After college, an opportunity surfaced where Scully was brought in to do one inning of Brooklyn Dodgers broadcasts with Barber at the helm. The team would move to Los Angeles in 1958 and Scully moved with them. He would become more than the voice of Southern California baseball. He became the voice of Major League Baseball.    

During broadcasts, Scully didn’t miss the social significance of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, the growing influence of Latino players or Hank Aaron’s plight while pursuing Babe Ruth’s home run record. But Scully also knew silence was golden and would let the roar of the crowd speak for itself.

For a kid that couldn’t make his high school basketball team until his senior year, Russell set the standard in basketball for winning championships and playing defense. Russell was drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics in 1956 and went on to win 11 championships in 13 years.

In a statement, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said, “Bill Russell was the greatest champion in all of team sports. The countless accolades that he earned for his storied career with the Boston Celtics — including a record 11 championships and five MVP awards — only begin to tell the story of Bill’s immense impact on our league and broader society.” In 2009, the NBA announced that the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award would be renamed the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.

Bill Russell photo courtesy of NPR/KERA News

“Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league. At the height of his athletic career, Bill advocated vigorously for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed down to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps,” Silver continued. Russell was the first Black head coach in NBA history.

 “Bill Russell was the greatest defensive player in NBA history and a man who changed the game at that end of the floor,” said Dave Heeren, author of the book “Seventy-Five: Best NBA Players and Teams Rated by Statistician who has Seen Games Since 1947.” In today’s TikTok and YouTube highlight world of “posterization” dunks, Russell is a reminder that defense wins championships.

Scully’s highlight reel spans across decades. The Sandy Koufax perfect game broadcast. Hank Aaron’s 715 home run call in Atlanta. The baseball rolling through Bill Buckner’s legs in game six of the 1986 World Series. The Kirk Gibson home run call in game one of the 1988 World Series. He was at the mic as the voice of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers for 67 years. He almost always worked alone. 

He was also a great football and golf announcer. He was the host of PGA Tour events and was the play-by-play announcer on NFL on CBS broadcasts, including the 1981 season’s NFC Championship Game between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, better known as “The Catch.”  

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement, “Vin was an extraordinary man whose gift for broadcasting brought joy to generations of Dodger fans. In addition, his voice played a memorable role in some of the greatest moments in the history of our sport. I am proud that Vin was synonymous with baseball because he embodied the very best of our national pastime. As great as he was as a broadcaster, he was equally great as a person.”

Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in 2011. Scully received the award in 2016. Russell was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. Scully would go into the broadcast wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

Russell was the greatest champion in team sports history. Scully was the greatest chronicler in sports broadcasting history. We should not mourn the loss of these legendary men. We should celebrate. We may never again see two men that overcame adversity, fulfilled their dreams and had such a positive influence over generations. The memories of Russell and Scully will live on forever.