Mike Glenn on death of Bill Russell: ‘He impressed me with the courage he had to stand up’

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) presents Basetball Hall of Fame member and human rights advocate Bill Russell the 2010 Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House February 15, 2011 in Washington, DC. Obama presented the medal to twelve pioneers in sports, labor, politics and arts.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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U.S. President Barack Obama (L) presents Basetball Hall of Fame member and human rights advocate Bill Russell the 2010 Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House February 15, 2011 in Washington, DC. Obama presented the medal to twelve pioneers in sports, labor, politics and arts. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Mike Glenn was in awe of Bill Russell.

Everyone was.

The former Hawks player and broadcaster on several occasions sat at the same table with Russell at retired NBA players meetings.

“I had a few words and discussions with him about things,” Glenn said Sunday after news of the death of Russell. “Everybody, the whole room, was impressed to be with Bill Russell. He was bigger than all of us. I don’t care who was at the table. Bill Russell is here. That’s it. There is no one bigger.”

Russell was one of the NBA’s greatest players and, without question, its greatest winner. The Hall of Famer won 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics and five NBA MVP Awards. He won two of the titles in 13 years as a player-coach. He also won NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 at San Francisco University and won a gold medal in 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics.

However, Russell was known to have perhaps a greater impact off the court with his quest for civil rights. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and worked with other athletes like Muhammed Ali, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Russell died at the age of 88 on Sunday, his family announced.

ExploreBill Russell, NBA great and Celtics legend, dies at 88

Russell made a lasting impact on Glenn on and off the court.

“First it was on the court because I was always watching games with my dad. Those Boston games seemed always to be on. … That’s the first thing that comes to mind about any athlete, can he play? If Jackie Robinson couldn’t play it would have been a whole different story. The fact that he was so good and those Celtics were so good, you couldn’t help but notice him and listen to what he had to say. He impacted me for sure.”

Off the court, Glenn referenced the famous photo of Russell with Ali, Brown and Abdul-Jabbar, along with other Black leaders, taken in Cleveland in 1967 as they gathered to support Ali for his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.

“They were standing up in spite of all of the problems that might come from that. You saw how important it was. He impressed me with the courage he had to stand up. … He refused to be a second-class citizen.”

Glenn puts Russell in a list of the top five Black athletes who impacted their sport on and off the field. The list includes Jack Johnson, Robinson, Ali, and Joe Louis.

Russell was also a 12-time all-star and in 1980 was voted the greatest player in the NBA history by basketball writers. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barak Obama in 2011. He wrote several books.

“It was always a team game,” Glenn said. “He wasn’t trying to see how many points he could score. You think Bill Russell cared about how many points he scored? No. A lot of players, even in other sports, got that message the way Bill Russell played the game, thought about the game and cared about the game and cared about the team like possibly no one has ever done.”

Glenn said he son, Michael, was thrilled when Russell introduced himself and shook the young man’s hand at a retired players meeting. Glenn said his former broadcast partner Bob Rathbun would say of Russell: “If anyone deserves to go to heaven without dying, it’s Bill Russell.”

“Seeing him, being in his presence, you had more pride, you could do more, you were more important and that’s what he did for some many athletes, not only African-American players but others as well,” Glenn said.

Explore2011: Bill Russell and Congressman John Lewis were honored at White House with Medal of Honor