I AM probably the least superstitious person I know, but there always seems to be something at least mildly auspicious about the first day of a new month also being the first day of a new week; it's a bit of calendar symmetry that motivates one to get organized and tackle the to-do list with purpose.
That enthusiasm yesterday, Monday, was challenged, however, by the first three news items I saw when I decided to turn on my laptop and reconnect with the world: the deaths, apparently almost simultaneously, of former Philippine president Fidel Ramos, NBA legend Bill Russell and actress Nichelle Nichols, better known as "Star Trek's" Lt. Uhura.
About President Ramos, much more will be said elsewhere by people more qualified than me to discuss his place in this country's history. He was a giant who stood all of about 5 feet tall. I met him once, some years ago; it was a memorable encounter, if a slightly intimidating one.
The other two are obviously not as well known here, but they were both also giants in their own right — and in Bill Russell's case, in the literal sense as well. Statistically, Bill Russell is the most decorated professional athlete in American history. In 20 seasons as a basketball player — four in high school, three in college and 13 as a pro — Bill Russell won 16 championships: two each in high school and college, 11 in the NBA, including eight in a row, and an Olympic gold medal thrown in for good measure. He is the only player ever to have won the NCAA and NBA championships in consecutive seasons (1956 and 1957), with his Olympic win as captain of the US team at the 1956 games in Melbourne sandwiched in between.
His last two championships with the Boston Celtics were his first two as a coach; Russell was the first black head coach of any major professional sports team in the US, and he went on to have other head coaching stints — albeit ones that were not particularly successful — with Seattle and Sacramento. His lifelong experience in fighting against racial discrimination contributed greatly to the adoption of rules by major sports leagues requiring teams to include candidates from "traditionally underrepresented communities" (which is how the West Coast Conference of the NCAA, which named its rule the "Russell Rule" in his honor puts it) when hiring for any executive or senior coaching position.
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If you wonder why any of this should mean anything to people in the Philippines, or at least basketball fans here, look at it this way: without Bill Russell, guys like Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra — whose mother is from Laguna — probably wouldn't have a job.
As basketball fans mourn the passing of one of their icons, science fiction fans — but more significantly, women and African Americans in the aerospace industry — also mourn the loss of one of theirs. Actress, dancer, singer, author and artist Nichelle Nichols had a 20-plus year career as an entertainer, performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, before "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry bucked mid-1960s racial prejudices and cast her in a key role in a weird little TV show he'd put together. As she told the story, she almost gave up on it after a year, but was encouraged to stay after a guy who described himself as "her biggest fan" — Martin Luther King Jr. — came up and introduced himself to a starstruck Nichols at an event. Already active in civil rights campaigning, Nichols took it up a notch, and used her fame as Lt. Uhura to profound effect, working with NASA for many years to recruit women and African Americans to the space program, as well as encouraging young people to study sciences.
Among those who credit Nichols for inspiring them to pursue their careers and were recruited in the program she guided were America's first female astronaut, Sally Ride; the first African American astronaut, Col. Guion Bluford; veteran astronaut and former NASA administrator Charles Bolden; and the first African American female astronaut, Mae Jemison. As seems entirely appropriate, an asteroid discovered in 2001, 68410 Nichols, was named in her honor for her work as a recruiter and global ambassador for NASA.
The mission of the fictional USS Enterprise in "Star Trek" was "to boldly go where no one has gone before," which is exactly what Bill Russell and Nichelle Nichols both did in their own way. And on this side of the world, people here and throughout Southeast Asia are now memorializing the leader who transformed the Philippines from a post-revolutionary mess into a functioning country. The world turns, time passes, people age and die. That is the way of things, but some days it is hard not to think that the worthy ones are not boldly going where no one has gone before, but boldly getting the hell off this messed-up planet before it completely falls apart. The talent to inspire, to excel, to fundamentally change some things for the better is rare; our loss is and always will be greater than theirs.