Danny Ainge reflects on Bill Russell and the Sacramento Kings connection that bonded them
Though both had careers with the Celtics, it was a single year in Sacramento that brought the two Boston legends together.
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone linked to the Boston Celtics — or the NBA for that matter — who does not have a tie to Bill Russell, the two-time Hall of Famer who won 11 titles as a player and two as a coach with the Celtics who died Sunday at the age of 88.
Utah Jazz CEO Danny Ainge is no exception.
“I had an opportunity to sit and talk for hours with many Celtic legends over the years: John Havlicek, KC Jones, Sam Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, Jo Jo White, Red Auerbach and many others,” Ainge said on Sunday. “Their stories would often lead to conversations about the great Bill Russell. The influence he had on those he was so close with is impressive, but the impact he had on so many people everywhere is legendary.”
Though Ainge was drafted by the Celtics in 1981 — well after Russell retired from his playing days and left the Celtics in 1969 — and had his own illustrious career in Boston, winning titles in 1984 and 1986, his closest connection with Russell was forged in Sacramento.
In 1989, Russell was the general manager of the Sacramento Kings following a year of being the team’s coach, a job that was meant to last seven years but ended shortly after it began.
One of Russell’s biggest moves as the lead executive for the Kings was trading Joe Kleine and Ed Pinckney to the Celtics for Ainge and Brad Lohaus.
The Kings would go on to win just 23 games that season and moved on without Russell. The team told Ainge they were going to rebuild and allowed him to choose where he landed next, and he was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Though Ainge’s year in Sacramento was turbulent and marred by losses on the court, the suicide of Kings forward Ricky Berry and turnover on the team, Ainge looks at his time in Sacramento with fondness, and it was Russell’s presence that gave him peace of mind and confidence.
“Bill traded for me as the general manager of the Sacramento Kings in 1989. I had a chance to spend a lot of time that year with him, on the golf course and in his office, as a lot of sadness hit our team that season,” Ainge said.
“His mentorship, friendship and laughter helped me through a tough time in my career. I will always remember his laugh. Every time I see his picture, I can hear it.”
Throughout his life, Russell instilled confidence in uncountable numbers of people, not just athletes.
In addition to being an 11-time champion, five-time NBA MVP and the league’s first Black head coach, he was a champion for the underrepresented and fought for equality at every turn.
“Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement Sunday.
“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. Through the taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill rose above it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.”