Kobe Bryant gives Bill Russell powerful tribute for ESPYS Arthur Ashe Courage Award

NBA legend Bill Russell's legacy was honored in grand fashion Wednesday night at the 2019 ESPYS. 

And it was delivered by a former Los Angeles Laker. 

Kobe Bryant made a powerful speech to introduce Russell, the Celtics' Hall of Fame big man and cultural icon, as this year's recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Bryant started by calling Russell, an 11-time NBA champion (in 13 seasons), the "greatest winner that sports has ever known."

But the impact of Bryant's speech was highlighted when he illuminated Russell as a linchpin for breaking racial barriers in an era that eventually paved the way for African-American athletes to thrive. 

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Kobe Bryant, left, and Bill Russell, of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, attend, The 2019 ESPYs at Microsoft Theater. (Photo: Rich Fury, Getty Images)

"Every generation has a responsibility to teach the next," Bryant began. "One thing I learned about Bill is how he drew inspiration from his grandfather (Jake), whose motto was, 'A man has to draw a line within himself that he will not allow any man to cross.' Bill learned from that, and added his own motto: 'You disrespect the line, you disrespect me.' More than 50 years later, Bill and his grandfather's mottos still resonate powerfully and still speak loudly for Bill's beliefs."

Russell achieved superstar status in the 1950s and 60s and later became the first African-American head coach in the NBA. He became central to the civil rights movement and stood up for the dignity of the black athlete on countless occasions — using his platform to evoke change. 

"Bill's dissatisfaction with the injustices of the world never changed," Bryant said. "His hope for a better tomorrow. … Bill has led the way that inspires all of us — the next generation — to follow his lead."

The 85-year-old Russell didn't speak when he won the award, but he received a standing ovation at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. 

In a pre-award tribute, Samuel L. Jackson read from Russell's book, "Go Up For Glory," and former President Barack Obama, who awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, said his own pathway to the presidency was carved out by Russell's pioneering. 

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