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Bill Russell: 'Tell those NFL players, I'm with them'

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NBA stars discuss 'powerful' stance players are taking (1:32)

LeBron James, Paul George, Draymond Green and Magic Johnson all discuss the importance of protests across sports and their hopes of making a difference. (1:32)

Bill Russell observed the protests of the NFL players unfolding on his television set with keen interest -- and a tinge of sadness. He is 83 years old and has been down this road before.

Russell carved out a Hall of Fame NBA career by winning 11 championships in 13 seasons, but was also a vocal proponent of social justice for African-Americans in the '50s and '60s at a time when racial strife was rampant, particularly in Boston, the city where he suited up for the Celtics. It never deterred him from speaking up, but the price he paid was a complex and often tumultuous relationship with the very fans who cheered him on Boston's parquet. Vandals broke into his suburban home, smashed his trophies and defecated on his walls.

More than 50 years later, Russell remains dismayed that some of the very issues he addressed are still festering.

Following comments from President Donald Trump, who declared any players who knelt during the national anthem should be fired or suspended, NFL teams articulated their solidarity with one another in myriad ways: some by kneeling, some by locking arms, and some choosing to remain in their locker room. As Russell watched, and dissected some of the backlash directed at those players, he started thinking: What can I do?

"What I wanted,'' Russell explained, in an exclusive interview with ESPN, "was to let those guys know I support them. I wanted them to know they are not alone.''

Russell and his wife Jeannine admit they are still learning about the power of social media. Russell's Twitter account, in fact, was unverified (the NBA has since assisted in securing Russell the necessary check mark to indicate his account is not that of an imposter). Their aim was to express solidarity with the athletes in a powerful, impactful way with a minimum amount of dialogue. They settled on an image of Russell, kneeling proudly, looking directly into the camera, his Presidential Medal of Freedom dangling from his neck, with the declaration: "Proud to take a knee and stand tall against social injustice.'' President Barack Obama awarded Russell the medal in February of 2011 for his social activism.

The response was overwhelming. The post went viral with an outpouring of grateful responses from athletes and activists across all platforms.

"I was telling Bill the photograph kept getting retweeted,'' Jeannine Russell said. "and he said, 'What are you talking about?'"

"Hey,'' Russell said, unleashing one of his trademark cackles, "I'm new to this.''

Yet Russell is hardly a novice when it comes to taking a stand. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1963 civil rights march in Washington, D.C., and was a staunch supporter of Muhammad Ali when he refused his induction into the U.S. Army.

He also repeatedly challenged the NBA during his career. The Celtics were the first franchise to field a starting unit made up of five African-Americans in 1964 and Russell was the first African-American coach in the league's history in 1966, yet racism endured.

"What I wanted was to let those guys know I support them. I wanted them to know they are not alone."

Bill Russell

Earlier in his career, on Oct. 17, 1961, when the Celtics were in Lexington, Kentucky, to play an exhibition game against the St. Louis Hawks, Russell's teammate Sam Jones was denied service in the café at the Phoenix Hotel, where the team was staying. One year earlier in an exhibition game in North Carolina, Boston's African-American players had experienced the same indignity, and while they agreed to play in the game, Russell warned coach Red Auerbach he couldn't -- and wouldn't -- overlook such treatment again if it occurred.

When Jones was turned away in Lexington, Russell called the airlines and informed Auerbach that he, Jones, Satch Sanders and K.C. Jones would be flying back to Boston without playing in the exhibition game. The decision caused a firestorm of controversy and criticism, although the players received staunch support from both Auerbach and owner Walter Brown.

Russell was also an outspoken critic of the NBA's racial quotas in the '50s and early-'60s, when teams agreed to an unspoken agreement to limit the number of African-Americans to three to a team. It was Russell who publicly called out NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy for that practice.

"If you don't, nothing changes,'' he said.

Today's NBA population, according to 2016 data from the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is made up of 81.7 percent of people of color.

Russell has endured health issues in recent years and his kneeling pose was not as effortless as it might appear. Yet, his wife said, he wanted his statement to be as powerful as possible.

Russell was amused by comments from playful fans who joked his presidential medal could double as a first-response emergency medical necklace, but mostly he was heartened by the emotional response from the NFL ranks.

"There's an old song I love called 'You Never Walk Alone,''' Russell said. "The words I always remembered best from that were 'When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don't be afraid of the dark.'''

That Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the musical "Carousel" was recorded by a number of artists, including Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra, whose version became an anthem of sorts for those who lost loved ones in the war. Gerry and the Pacemakers also recorded a popular version of the hit.

"When I was heavily criticized for my stance (on social justice) -- and you know I was -- I would go to my records and put that song on and play it,'' Russell explained. "At the end of the storm, there's a golden sky ...

"Just tell those NFL players, I'm with them.''