President Obama’s remarks on Stan Musial, Bill Russell

Former Seattle SuperSonics’ coach, NBA great and Mercer Island resident Bill Russell, still a regular at Gold Mountain Golf Club, and St. Louis Cardinals’ great Stan Musial were among those presented Medal of Freedom Awards on Wednesday at the White House.

Here’s what President Obama had to say about them during his speech:

Stan Musial’s brilliance could come in blinding bursts; hitting five home runs in a single day’s doubleheader, or leading the league in singles, doubles, triples, and RBIs over a single season.  But to win three World Series; to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer; to be worthy of one of the greatest nicknames in sports – “The Man” – he made that brilliance burn for two decades.

Stan matched his hustle with humility.  He retired with 17 records – even as he missed a season in his prime to serve his country in the Navy.  He was the first player to make $100,000 – only to ask for a pay cut when he didn’t perform up to his own expectations.  Stan remains, to this day, an icon, untarnished; a beloved pillar of the community; a gentleman you’d want your kids to emulate. “I hope I’ve given [baseball] nearly as much as I’ve gotten from it,” Stan wrote in his memoirs, knocking it out of the park one more.

When Bill Russell was in junior high, he was cut from the basketball team.  Turns out he got better after that.  He led the University of San Francisco to two championships. And in thirteen seasons with the Boston Celtics, he won eleven championships; two while also serving as the team’s coach – the first African American to ever hold that position on a major league sports team.  More than any athlete of his era, Bill Russell came to define the word, “winner.”

And yet, whenever someone looks up at all 6’9” of Bill Russell and asks “Are you a basketball player?” – a question he apparently gets more than you’d think – he says “No.” “[T]hat’s what I do, that’s not what I am.  I am not a basketball player.  I am a man who plays basketball.”

Bill Russell the man is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men.  He marched with King and stood by Ali.  When a restaurant refused to serve the black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game.  Enduring insults and vandalism, he simply focused on making the teammates who loved him better players, and made possible the success of so many who would follow.  And I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.

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