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02/01/08 10:34 PM ET

Russell praises Robinson at tribute

Celtics legend recalls baseball icon's impact in sports

BOSTON -- What Bill Russell wants people to remember about Jackie Robinson is not the color of his skin but the strength of his character.

On the first day of Black History Month, the Red Sox hosted a panel that included the Boston Celtics legend to elaborate on the Robinson legacy in baseball and on society today.

"We all know that fear was never a motivator for Jackie Robinson," Russell told the audience on Friday at Fenway Park's EMC Club. "Jackie's success was based on, not obstacles, but opportunities. He saw everything as a chance to do what he knew he could do."

Joining Russell on Friday evening at the EMC Club were Elaine Steward, vice president and club counsel for the Red Sox, Faye Fields, president/CEO of integrated resource technologies and part owner of the Washington Nationals and Steve Jacobson, author of "Carrying Jackie's Torch," a book that details the path Robinson cleared for many black athletes.

All four panelists were selected because of the direct impact Robinson and baseball had on their lives.

Russell made the cross-country trip from his Seattle home to tell the crowd of about 150 that Robinson was the first hero he had growing up following sports in Oakland.

"I'm so glad the Red Sox are doing this," Russell said. "Anytime they want to pay tribute to Jackie Robinson, I would be happy to be a part of it. But I do live in Seattle, and you can't get here from there."

The event concluded the two-day "Celebration of the Life of Jackie Robinson" at Fenway and was emceed by NESN's Don Orsillo and moderated by Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, whose pupils include Russell's daughter and presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

"At that time, very few baseball players were college men," Russell recalled. "And Jackie was a college man. He had to deal with a lot of adversaries who were not quite up to him. We just loved him.

"When I was with the Celtics, I had the opportunity to go down to New York and spend the day with him. It was the first time in my life that I had met someone, and I was speechless because we had so much, not only respect, but affection for Jackie."

What won Russell over about Robinson was the way the man handled himself on and off the diamond.

"Sometimes, things became very difficult, but he handled with dignity and intelligence," Russell said.

It was sadly ironic that Russell was most touched by Robinson the day after he passed away on October 24, 1972. Russell, who had retired from coaching and playing in the NBA, recalled on Friday how he was asked to serve as a pall bearer at Robinson's funeral by his widow, Rachel.

"I asked her, 'Why would you do that?' She said, 'To Jackie, you were his favorite athlete.' I said, 'Thank you.' As I hung the phone up, I asked myself, 'How do you get to be a hero to Jackie Robinson?' I felt so flattered," Russell said.

Russell repeated to the audience that Robinson was more about what intelligence than simply breaking a color barrier in his sport.

"What Jackie started was for folks to think of the black athlete as intelligent, articulate and great athletes who were playing this game," Russell said. "They were not dumb jocks. I've had a number of white athletes say to me, 'Thank you,' because when I entered sports, most athletes were thought of as dumb jocks."

The Red Sox through the Red Sox Foundation took the occasion Friday night at the end of the panel discussion to announce they are sponsoring a full four-year Jackie Robinson Scholarship, to be awarded to a high school student chosen by the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

"I participate in the Jackie Robinson Foundation and I'm very proud of it because Jackie Robinson Scholars get to pick their own schools and we have Jackie Robinson Scholars all over the country and we're really proud of that," Russell said.

It was Rachel Robinson who set up the Jackie Robinson Foundation to benefit inner-city youth around the country and open up doors that had been previously closed.

"I call Rachel the Great Lady of Sports because she's carried on his name in such a great and dignified manner that it makes us proud to be associated with it," Russell said.

As a keepsake and a way of showing their appreciation, the Red Sox gave all four panelists a Red Sox jersey with Robinson's No. 42 on the back.

But on this night, no one had to remind anyone of the true significance Robinson had on their lives -- especially Russell.

Mike Petraglia is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.