Bill and Fidel

TWO larger than life people left the Planet on the same day, on July 31.

Both were sportsmen, each in his own right. One was an athlete of mythical stature. The other, a former president of his country, with his life story woven into the tapestry of the land.

Bill Russell was not just a legend of the National Basketball Association (NBA) or of American sports. His fame and his good works spilled beyond the court. But in his realm of sports, he had no equal. To this day.

Despite the accomplishments and GOAT-hood of contemporary greats Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in basketball, none of them could equal or outdo No. 6 of the Boston Celtics, born William Felton Russell on February 12,1934.

An Olympic gold medalist and two-time NCAA champion, he led the Celtics to 11 NBA titles, two of them as player-coach, and made Boston the first pro basketball dynasty. He was a 12-time All-Star too and had five MVP awards. The NBA Finals MVP Award is in fact named after him.

Bill Russell’s record in his sport is insurmountable to this date. His “challengers” come from other sports: Henri Richard who won the Stanley Cup 11 times with the Montreal Canadiens. And Yogi Berra who won 10 World Series titles with his New York Yankees.

Writer Jay King says in The Athletic: “This truth cannot be debated: Russell and the Celtics owned the NBA like no other team ever has or ever will. He cared only about winning and he did it better than anyone—in any team sport—ever has. He encountered 10 Game 7s and left each one with a victory. How improbable is that? The likelihood of flipping a coin the same way 10 times in a row is 0.098 percent. Russell’s teams were the NBA’s 1 percent. He has as many rings as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson combined. He won eight straight championships during one stretch.”

Outside of the court he did big things too. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said, “Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league. 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.”

And here’s a little trivia about Bill Russell that’s closer to the hearts of Filipinos.

Did you know that he and Caloy Loyzaga were friends? The two met and played together in the 1954 FIBA world championship in Rio de Janeiro where the Philippines placed third, knocked out of title play only by powerhouse, Team USA.

No.6 (6-foot-10) was reportedly so impressed with Caloy, who became a member of the FIBA Mythical Five that year, because despite his 6-foot-2 height, The Big Difference could outrebound much taller guys. The secret, said Caloy, was in his wingspan, which was much longer than his height.

The two met again in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 where Russell gave Loyzaga sage advice about a basketball career. “Getting to the top is hard, but when you’re already there, it’s twice as hard to stay there.… Quit while you’re ahead. And remember to treat everybody well.” The two stayed in touch every  and then.

As for the other sportsman, Fidel V. Ramos, 12th president of our Republic, he was not into competitive sports, but was a sportsman through and through. He played golf, jogged and was all about fitness, discipline, physical strength and good health. Up before the crack of dawn and a workaholic, he out-energized everybody around him. He challenged people to do sit-ups and push-ups. He would hoist his entire upper body out of car windows just to bid goodbye and finish it off with fist bumps.

One look at FVR and you were inspired to get fit. His Leap of Joy at EDSA One is unforgettable. How he jogged straight from the airport to EDSA for EDSA Dos is unbelievable. As obsessed as he was about physical fitness, he also made government and the economy fit during his term.

Thank you, FVR, for those Ramos Years. Thank you, Bill, for teaching us greatness.