There are decorated athletes, and then there is Bill Russell.
As the dominant man in the middle for the Boston Celtics from 1956 to 1969, Russell was a 12-time All-Star selection. He won 11 N.B.A. championships, the last two as the team's player-coach. He was the first player to win an Olympic gold medal and an N.B.A. championship and a college title. Indeed, he won two of those at the University of San Francisco.
But even as Russell, 83, revolutionized the game with his defensive prowess from the center position, he may have made his greatest impact as a civil rights pioneer. He was the first African-American to coach a major professional sports team. In 2011, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
This month, he appeared on a dais with the Golden State Warriors to present Kevin Durant with the N.B.A. finals' Most Valuable Player Award -- an award that is named after Russell.
There is more: On Monday, Russell will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the inaugural N.B.A. Awards show, which will be broadcast by TNT at 9 p.m. Eastern. Russell, who plans to attend the ceremony, was recently interviewed by telephone from his home in the Seattle area. This interview has been edited and condensed.
In light of your most recent award, what do you feel are your meaningful contributions to the game?
I was a part of a wave of black players that came into the league and played successfully. Before my time, everybody thought of black players as the Harlem Globetrotters. People expected comedy, and they didn't get it. So it was a newly respected level of black players -- that we were not Globetrotters but very good players. You had guys like Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor -- they could play! And you could not just give them a pat on the head, you know? They eliminated the ''you guys'' label. In fact, I remember how Jerry West was respected -- they used to say that he played like he was black.
I was also the first player recognized for my defense rather than my offense. I think those are examples of how I may have helped change the game.
A lot of today's stars are using their platform to speak out about issues that are important to them, including race relations and gun violence. Are you heartened by the level of social awareness exhibited by some of the players of this generation?
I suppose. I think that every generation throughout the whole society have social issues that they deal with. And this generation is no different. The issues are different, but the fact that they're dealing with them is not different.
What do you think of today's style of play? What do you like about the game, and what don't you like?
It's more one-on-one. I thought it was a team game, and they're getting away from the team aspect and more into one-on-one. And I don't subscribe to that. What we should be working toward is trying to take the team concept to its final conclusion: The best team will be the best team. It's changed.
The Golden State Warriors are probably the best example of that team concept in today's N.B.A. Given your style of play, do you think you could have fit with that team?
When you look back and compare the '50s and the '60s with today's Warriors, I think you'll find that they had a lot in common. In my day, I was just playing basketball -- and I could play. I remember when I went to the Celtics, there were questions about whether I could fit in with that group because they were known for being a very offensive team. Red Auerbach, when I got there, he says, ''You may be worried about playing with this team. But I'm the coach, and you'll fit.''
Some folks tried to encourage me to say that I wanted to play someplace where the team was more defense-oriented. And my attitude was, ''I can play and will play defense here.'' There were very serious questions if I could play pro ball, you know? Some said that I couldn't shoot free throws, couldn't do this, couldn't do that. And I was glad that they said that, because those were the guys that I beat the hell out of.
We're seeing all these centers launching 3-pointers now. If the 3-point line had existed during your era, would you have tried to develop a 3-point shot?
No. Take the game like you find it and play it to the best of your ability.
So you're not jealous of them?
Not at all! That's the only kind of shot they can get off!