While Bill Russell hasn’t had quite as prolific a media-career as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but he did his fair share of TV credits. Russell did Carson three times, Letterman once, and even showed up for ‘The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn‘; but none of these moments were quite as significant as the relationship he formed with Jon Stewart and The Daily Show.
In “The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History“, Stewart says Russell began contacting him after John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential campaign. As Stewart told it:
“My favorite thing was Bill Russell calling to try and cheer me up. Bill Russell, the legendary Boston Celtics center. He’s a gentleman, real gentleman. In the sixties he stood up on issues when it was not easy.
Every bow and then he would call, and just chat. Said he was digging what we were doing, and don’t get down, and keep on keeping on. Like he was giving a a pep talk, a halftime talk from when he was an NBA coach.”
After that, Russell went on to appear twice on The Daily Show while Stewart was the host. The first appearance was in 2007, when Russell was featured in a segment with correspondent Samantha Bee, complaining that his local government was playing religious chime music all the time.
Then, strangely enough, two months later, while appearing on the show to announce his presidential campaign, John McCain quoted Bill Russell. During a discussion about the war in Iraq, McCain invoked the former MVP, saying: “the famous philosopher of the Boston Celtics, once said, ‘When things go bad, things go bad’.”
At this point, Russell had still never actually been interviewed on the show. It wasn’t until two years later that Russell would sit down for a direct interview with the show’s host. During the appearance, the Hall-of-Fame center explained exactly why he liked Stewart:
“Many years ago, I happened to spend an afternoon with a guy named Jack Benny… And he said something that I want to say to you. People say ‘you’re funny’ – he says you are ‘witty’… Humor with intelligence.”
And that exact same mixture of humor and intelligence was on display when Russell found himself on the show yet again. This time, however, Russell became the subject of a segment after ABC Anchor George Stephanopoulos mistook him for Morgan Freeman during President Obama’s 2013 inauguration. After showing the clip, Stewart quipped: “[in] Stephanopoulos’ defense, all tall people look alike to him”.
All of this makes Russell one of the few, if not only, people to appear on “The Daily Show” as a guest, the focus of a field piece, the subject of a desk segment and a talking point. It’s a small yet interesting side-note in the 83 year-old’s long list of achievements.
Of course, Russell’s biggest non-athletic achievement was his work on the subject of civil rights. Along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown, he appeared at the Muhammad Ali Summit in 1967, and he’s been a champion of athletes using their influence for good ever since. Most recently, Russell appeared in ESPN to “tell those NFL players, I’m with them”.
With sports and politics now as entwined as ever, it feels like Russell’s legacy is almost omnipresent – and it’s a shame Jon Stewart doesn’t have a show on which to interview him… Luckily, Jon Stewart will be briefly returning to TV on Saturday, November 18 at 8:00PM, for HBO’s “Night of Too Many Stars” (a live show benefiting NEXT for Autism).