Bill Russell: We are nothing without our mentors

If not for George Powles, I would have never played basketball.

A mentor who changed my life.

Who was George Powles?

The year was 1949 and I was a sophomore at McClymonds High School in Oakland. Back then, freshman couldn’t try out for the Junior Varsity basketball team, and as a sophomore, I was cut after just one try-out.

Peering over my shoulder was my junior high coach, George Powles. He told me that he wanted me to try out for the Varsity team. I told him that I was just cut from the JV team.

He said, ‘I am the Varsity coach. Wait for me after practice.’

After practice, I met him at his car and he drove me to the local Boys & Girls Club and said, “I want you to play basketball every day.”

And he took two dollars out of his wallet and paid for my membership.

And that’s what I did. I played basketball every day after school and honed my skills.

If it wasn’t for the kindness, support and vision of George Powles, I would not have played basketball.

My story isn’t unique.

The truth is, that in all walks of life, mentors transform lives. Whether it’s the middle school math teacher who drove you home from school every day; the uncle who busted your chops when your grades started to slip; the older student who kept you under a watchful eye; or the basketball coach who believed in you – none of us would be where we are today without the support of our mentors.

I am proof. That’s why, 25 years ago, I became a founding board member of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership to build and lead the mentoring movement and since then, MENTOR has helped create and drive support to thousands of programs mentoring millions of kids.

It is my proudest accomplishment in life.

And that’s why I’m telling my story now, as part of the work MENTOR and the NBA family are doing together in response to President Obama’s call to action around the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

This January, during National Mentoring Month, we are joining forces to tell stories about the power of mentoring and challenging people to pay it forward, to make a difference in someone’s life as someone once did for them.

We’re calling it “In Real Life” because when it comes to mentoring young people, you can’t make a difference by simply sending a tweet or using a hashtag – you need to get involved “in real life.”  You need to be there, physically present and in the moment, so you can look a person in the eye. That’s how you make a difference.

With more than nine million children in this country growing up without an adult role model in their life, it’s up to each of us to unleash the potential of our nation’s young people, one at a time.

There has never been a more important time to remind ourselves that in America, there is no such thing as other people’s children.

So, I’m asking you to be that change, just as George Powles was for me.

Bill Russell is a founding board member of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the most celebrated NBA champion of all time. You can find out more about the In Real Life campaign