It is not without some irony that the greatest champion in NBA history achieved his greatness in a city where racial tension was notoriously high. Drafted with the second pick of the 1956 draft, Bill Russell became one of the game’s greatest ever and broke through many barriers throughout his career.
Russell would have an immediate impact in his rookie season with averages of 14.7ppg and 19.6rpg en route to his first of 11 NBA titles. In only his second season, he became the first black player to be given the league’s Most Valuable Player title. An award he would receive a total of five times throughout his career.
The six foot ten center was an out-and-out stat sheet stuffer – though was never obsessed in chasing individual statistics like so many other stars. There was only one thing Russell obsessed over and that was wins. Russell was the consummate teammate and the reverence his fellow players still have for him is unheralded.
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In the final two seasons of his career, Russell took over the reins as player-coach for the Celtics. In doing so, he also became the first black coach in the league and is still the only player-coach to win a title (he won two).
But life was far from plain sailing for the Celtic’s big man. Even his superstar status did not prevent him from being subjected to the racism prevalent in day-to-day life in the US. Various publications have recounted how after Russell bought a home in a white neighbourhood, it was broken into, racist graffiti being scrawled on the walls and the bed had been defecated upon.
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In fact for all his on-court success with the Celtics, experiences like this meant Russell never felt accepted in Boston during his playing days. With a career that coincided with the Civil Rights movement’s rise to prominence, Russell understood that his position as a black man and a star athlete gave him a unique platform to voice his opinion - though his honest, critical and blunt thoughts would draw criticism and support in equal proportions.
Russell refused to settle for the label of a basketball player, confirming that whilst basketball was what he did, he was much more than just a professional athlete. Perhaps the defining moment of the Civil Rights movement was the 1963 march on Washington which climaxed with Martin Luther King Junior’s “I have a dream” speech. Russell was there, at the height of his career, marching alongside 250,000 others and was even invited by King to stand with him during the speech.
In a 2013 piece for The Basketball Jones, Justin Tinsley detailed why Russell turned down the chance to join King. It was ‘not because of any ill will, but because he understood the pain and tears it took to produce an event of this magnitude. ”He invited me to be up here, and I respectfully declined because the organizers had worked for years to get this together, and I hadn’t done anything,” said Russell at the March’s 50th anniversary’.
Whilst not specifically involved in organising the march, Russell was active within the movement. A few months prior, another leader of the movement, Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi. Russell, keen to help any way he could, contacted Medgar’s brother Charles to offer his services. The result was the first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi. This was a huge step in a state where blacks still could not register to vote.
The camp was a success – a testament to Russell’s celebrity, but the threat to his life was very real. The night before, with members of the Ku Klux Klan across the street, a collection of black volunteers stood outside Russell’s motel door. Inside, whilst Russell tried to sleep. Charles Evers sat on a chair facing the door with a rifle on his lap.
Russell was also outspoken in his support of Muhammad Ali and his protest of the military draft for the Vietnam war. In “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution”, Aram Goudsouzian quotes the Celtics legend saying “We foolishly lionize athletes and make them heroes because they can hit a ball or catch one,” Russell said. “The only athletes we should bother with attaching any particular importance to are those like Ali, whom we can admire for themselves and not for their incidental athletic abilities.”
It is indisputable that Russell changed the game on the hardwood. But his off-court achievements and contribution to society should carry as much, if not more weight than his incredible Celtics career. In 2010, Barack Obama recognised his commitment to equality by awarding Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2011, the Celtic’s unveiled a statue in his honour. A champion, a winner, a hall of
In 2011, the Celtic’s unveiled a statue in his honour. A champion, a winner, a Hall of Famer, an activist, a freedom fighter, an advocate of human equality. Much more than just a basketball player.