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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Recalls Awkward First Encounter With Bill Russell: “I’m Not Getting Up Just To Meet Some Kid.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Recalls Awkward First Encounter With Bill Russell: “I’m Not Getting Up Just To Meet Some Kid.”

The Boston Celtics and NBA legend Bill Russell sadly passed away last week at age 88, leaving this world as an incredible winner and somebody who fought for those less fortunate during his entire life. Russell was a gentleman on and off the court, but sometimes, to get his attention, you needed more than the desire. 

That's what happened to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he was a teenager and had the chance to meet the 11-time NBA champion. During a trip to New York, the Celtics practiced at Kareem's high school, Power Memorial Academy, where the two legendary centers had an early meeting. 

Kareem, who at the time still had the name Lew Alcindor, thought that his team was practicing at the time he arrived at the gym, only to find the mighty Boston Celtics and Bill Russell, getting ready to face the New York Knicks. At age 14, Alcindor was just about to create his legend, which explains why Russell wasn't so thrilled to meet him. 

“I first met Bill Russell in 1961, when I was a 14-year-old freshman at Power Memorial High School,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote on his Substack. I had just arrived at the school gym for team practice only to find the Boston Celtics practicing instead. I was surprised to see a professional team in our gym, especially the NBA champions for the last three seasons in a row. As I found out later, because our gym was only twelve blocks from Madison Square Garden and near to several hotels, we were convenient for teams to practice.”

At the time, Russell was reading his newspaper and wasn't interested in doing anything different, but his coach insisted that he had to meet this kid. 

“Lew, c’mere,” Coach Donahue called to me.

I gulped. Me?

I shuffled over to Coach Donahue, who introduced me to Coach Auerbach. Coach Auerbach gestured at Bill Russell. “Hey, Bill, c’mere. I want you to meet this kid.”

Bill Russell dipped down his newspaper and looked me over with a frown. Then he snorted. “I’m not getting up just to meet some kid.”

I shrank to about six inches tall. I just wanted to run straight home.

Auerbach chuckled. “Don’t let him get to you, kid. Sometimes he can be a real sourpuss.” He grabbed my wrist and walked me over to Russell.

“Bill, be nice. This is the kid who just might be the next you.”

“I stuck out my hand. ‘How do you do, Mr. Russell? Pleasure to meet you,'” Kareem recounted. “He didn’t smile, but his demeanor had softened, just a little. He shook my hand. ‘Yeah, yeah, kid.’ That’s how I met my childhood hero.”

Even though it wasn't the happiest meeting of all time, Kareem felt great for meeting his idol, admitting he sensed that Russell somehow saw something in him when they shook hands. 

“They say you should never meet your heroes,” Abdul-Jabbar continued. “That it’s mostly disappointing, disillusioning, or disheartening. But that wasn’t my experience. I was thrilled. He spoke to me. And I thought I saw in his eyes a recognition of someone, like him, who had a passion for the game that burned deep and hot and bright. Or maybe that’s what I wanted to see. Either way, it fueled me to strive harder to be more like him.”

Greatness recognizes greatness, and even if it wasn't in the best way, it seems like that's what happened between Abdul-Jabbar and Russell. Many years after that first encounter, they are two of the greatest centers of all time, with Kareem creating his legend both in Milwaukee and Los Angeles and Russell winning as a player and coach in Boston. 

The respect they had for each other was huge, and that's something Kareem will treasure for the rest of his life. 

**Credit for idea: Sportscasting**