2023 All-Star

Bill Russell's unparalleled legacy towers over 2023 Legends Brunch

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Grant Hill and Julius Erving are among those to pay homage to legendary NBA icon Bill Russell.

Thurl Bailey sings to honor and remember those lost in the past year at the 2023 Legends Brunch.

SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the NBA’s extended family who have passed away in the preceding 12 months are touchingly remembered each year during the “In Memoriam” segment of the Legends Brunch at All-Star weekend. The program Sunday at the Salt Palace Convention Center was highlighted by former Utah Jazz forward-turned-broadcaster Thurl Bailey soulfully singing Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” as photos of the dearly departed were shown on big screens.

The loss of Bill Russell, who died July 31 at age 88, demanded something more. His impact on the NBA and the sports world was honored with a separate tribute.

Julius Erving was the featured speaker, discusing the friendship that he developed over the years with the legendary Celtics center, 16 years his elder.

“More than anyone else before or after, he was a champion on and off the court,” Erving said. “If [Bill] had never picked up a basketball, we would still be celebrating his accomplishments in life and his contributions to mankind.”

In basketball, he showed us how to play with grace and passion. In life, he showed us how to live with compassion and joy.”

— Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, on Bill Russell

Next, Jaylen Brown, Grant Hill and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shared personal stories about Russell, who led Boston to 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons. He became the league’s first Black coach to win the final two titles, and his efforts and comments on behalf of Black Americans and civil rights issues were almost as well-known as his basketball achievements.

“Bill Russell was powerful because justice is powerful and joy is power, too,” Hill said. “We might never meet another hero like him again.”

Abdul-Jabbar talked of meeting Russell when he was 14-year-old Lew Alcindor, learning about the game from him, then joining him with Jim Brown, Willie Davis and other prominent Black athletes on the “Cleveland Summit” in support of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted to fight in Vietnam in 1967.

“In basketball, he showed us how to play with grace and passion. In life, he showed us how to live with compassion and joy,” Abdul-Jabbar said.

The Legends Brunch, attended annually by more than 100 former NBA players, their families and fans, traditionally honors notable alumni in the All-Star host market. No surprise, then, that Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone were the recipients of the Hometown Hero and Legend of the Year awards, respectively.

Bill Russell was an 11-time NBA champion and 12-time All-Star, but his impact went far beyond the basketball court as he fought for civil rights and social justice.

Malone’s introduction was handled by legend Bill Walton, who gave a pacing, humorous and hyperbolic recap of a 19-year career for “The Mailman”. He spoke of Malone’s youth, the youngest of nine kids, working on a farm and “wrestlin’ hogs.”

Walton eventually got Malone’s status among NBA greats, including the fact that “he was fouled more than anyone in history.” It’s true: Malone holds the career marks for free throws taken (13,188) and made (9,787).

Of Malone’s chiseled physique and punishment both taken and dealt, Walton said: “When Karl hit the floor, you felt bad for the floor.”

Malone, 59, gave a tearful speech about family, particularly honoring his mother Shirley and the grandfather who helped raise him. He thanked Erving for inspiring him as a player, mentioning he chose to wear “32” based on the Doctor’s number in his ABA days.

He spoke of his brotherhood with Stockton, the sidekick in Utah’s dominant pick-and-roll attack for 18 years together, in spite of what Malone referred to as “my faults.” “I’m forever grateful,” the bigger man said.

Stockton, the NBA’s all-time assists and steals leader, had a poignant moment when he choked up talking about former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. Sloan, who died in May 2020, coached the pair for 15 seasons.

“What a wonderful man,” Stockton said, his voice wavering. “He was the soul and personality of our team. I miss him.”

John Stockton and Pau Gasol each gave memorable speeches at Sunday’s Legends Brunch in Salt Lake City.

Stockton also gave credit to longtime Jazz owner Larry Miller, who died in 2009, and the team’s management for making “it popular to be a family man in this community.” “I don’t know if I could have survived anywhere else,” Stockton said.

The league announced another award Sunday: the Bob Lanier Community Impact Award. Lanier, who died last May, was a Hall of Famer and an eight-time All-Star with Detroit and Milwaukee. He retired in 1984 but was rejuvenated working for the league as an NBA ambassador for more than 30 years, traveling the world to promote basketball. Lanier became good friends with NBA commissioner Adam Silver when Silver was moving up the league’s management side.

The first winner of the Lanier award: Pau Gasol, the six-time All-Star and two-time Lakers champion from Spain. Gasol had a busy weekend, being named a 2023 Hall of Finalist and coaching the winning squad in the Rising Stars event Friday.

Gasol and his brother Marc have begun a foundation, with a commitment to fighting the childhood obesity “pandemic” that can damage their health for a lifetime.

“We are examples, whether we like it or not,” Gasol said. “Playing in the NBA, we have a platform. Kids are looking, people are looking, the world’s looking and cheering for us. We become role models. We’ve got to set a good example.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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