LOS ANGELES — The last time Bill Russell attended a Lakers-Celtics game here of any significance, it was in 2010 when his beloved Celtics lost the seventh game of the Finals and he awarded the MVP award, which had just been renamed in his honor the previous year, to Kobe Bryant.
This time, Russell was back at Staples Center for LA-Boston and he honored Bryant again — by wearing a No. 24 Lakers jersey while sitting court side.
It was the only time in anyone’s memory that Russell represented a player or team other than Boston, but obviously there was an emotional and good reason for this on Sunday. The Celtics great was appearing in LA a day prior to Bryant’s memorial at Staples, which he will attend.
Russell is 86 and rarely travels during the NBA season from his home in Seattle, except to the All-Star Game in February and to award the Finals MVP in June. He was greeted warmly prior to the game by a number of current and former Lakers, including Magic Johnson, who singled out Russell at an impromptu ceremony to celebrate the Lakers-Celtics rivalry.
“That’s why I won championships, because of that man right there,” said Magic. “He’s still the class of this league and we thank him for coming.”
When the photo of Russell in Kobe’s jersey went viral on social media, Russell was moved to issue his own response, citing Kobe and his daughter Gigi, who also died in the helicopter crash that claimed nine lives:
“I would do anything to honor #KobeandGianna. I am always a Celtic. We had a deeper connection. 2 + 4 does = 6. We had much love & respect for one another.”
Bryant has long expressed his respect for Russell and was touched to receive the Finals MVP twice in his career. The two had a friendly relationship and spoke often.
The Celtics also wore black armbands at Sunday’s game, and some players are expected to stay behind to attend the memorial before departing for Portland for a Tuesday game with the Blazers. The entire current Lakers team will attend and many former players received invitations and are expected.
“Part of his legacy was this (Celtics-Lakers) rivalry for 20 years,” said Anthony Davis. “Every time we step on the floor, it’s ‘how can we honor his legacy?’ We try to do that each and every game.”