It’s easy to remember the shots blocked by Bill Russell or the NBA championships he won. After all, there were so many that he is considered one of the greatest basketball players in history, and in some corners, the greatest, period.
But after his nearly nine decades of life, his most significant legacy has less to do with the sport he dominated than his work off the pitch. From the time he was a young man until his death at 88 on Sunday, Russell was a civil rights activist who consistently used his platform as a celebrity athlete to confront racism no matter who he alienated or what he was doing to his public popularity. And he was one of the first to do so.
Now, it’s common for athletes in many sports to be outspoken, no doubt inspired by Russell. The NBA Players Union encourages its members to be passionate about their politics, especially around social justice. Without Russell risking his own livelihood and enduring the cruelties he did as a black player in the segregated Boston of the 1950s and 1960s, athlete activism would look very different today, if it existed. .
“The plan was written by Russell,” the Reverend. Al Sharpton said in an interview on Sunday. He continued, “It’s now fashionable on social media to take a stand. I did it when it wasn’t fashionable. I started the trend.
Spike Lee, the director and longtime NBA fan, said in a text message, “We’re losing so many greats my head is spinning.”
Lee said Russell “is right there with Jackie Robinson to change the game in sports and activism in the United States of America, and we’re all better off because of these champions.”
Russell, a native of West Monroe, Louisiana, was a trailblazer from the moment he set foot on an NBA court.
“My rookie year, in the championship series, I was the only black player on both teams,” Russell once joked in front of an audience while accepting an award in Boston. “And look what we did, we showed them that diversity works.”
Russell walked with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 at the height of his playing career (I played for the Celtics from 1956 to 1969). He was asked to sit on stage behind King, but he declined. That same year, Russell publicly offered his support for protests against segregation in Boston public schoolsand was aimed at black students participating in a sit-in.
When civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated, also in 1963, Russell contacted Evers’ older brother, Charles, in Jackson, Miss., and offered to help. The elder Evers suggested that Russell organize an integrated basketball camp in the Deep South, which would have posed a significant safety risk to Russell. He said yes, and despite death threats, crossed with the camp.
Four years later, when boxer Muhammad Ali faced a torrent of criticism for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, Russell, NFL star Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as by Lew Alcindor and still playing at UCLA) gathered in Cleveland and decided to support Ali. It wasn’t a popular position, not that Russell cared.
Russell wrote immediately after this he was jealous of Ali.
“He has absolute, sincere faith,” Russell wrote for Sports Illustrated. “I am not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials ahead of him. What worries me is the rest of us.
Russell’s activism has impacted generations of athletes. This included Spencer Haywood, who played for Russell as a member of the Seattle SuperSonics, whom Russell coached. for four seasons. (In 1966, Russell became the NBA’s first black coach)
Haywood said in an interview Sunday that he and Russell would often dine at a Seattle restaurant called 13 Coins after road trips, and Russell would regale him with stories about the civil rights movement. During those dinners, Russell praised the young player’s willingness to sue the NBA in 1971 for not allowing players to enter the league for up to four years after graduating from high school — a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was ultimately decided in favor of Haywood.
“He was teaching me because he knew what I stood for with my Supreme Court decision,” Haywood said. “And I admired that in me. And I was so overwhelmed that he knew.
Haywood said his teammates would jokingly refer to Russell as Haywood’s “dad” because of how close they were. Sometimes Haywood’s late-night chats with Russell came with surprising advice on activism.
“He was always telling me not to get too carried away because we were in the 70s,” Haywood recalled. “He was kind of guiding me by saying, ‘Don’t go too far right now because you’re a player and you have to play the game. But you’ve taken a position and you’ve done well, but don’t Don’t go too far. He was, like, giving me a guardrail.
Russell was never afraid to go overboard as an activist player himself. I was not deterred by racist taunts he absorbed games, or when vandals broke into his house, spray-painted epithets on the wall and left feces on the bed after he moved his family to Reading, Mass. When he tried to move his family to another house nearby, some residents of the predominantly white neighborhood started a petition to keep him out.
“I said then that I was not afraid of the kind of men who come in the dark of night,” Russell wrote. for Slam magazine in 2020. “The thing is, I’ve never found fear useful.”
He didn’t always have the support of his teammates. In 1961, for example, the Celtics traveled to Lexington, Ky., for an exhibition game against the St. Louis Hawks. When the hotel restaurant was not serving the team’s black players, Russell ran a game strike. His white teammates played along. Bob Cousy, one of Russell’s white teammates, told writer Gary M. Pomerantz decades later for the 2018 book “The Last Pass: Cousy, the Celtics and What Matters in the End” that he was “ashamed” to have participated in the Game. President Barack Obama cited the 1961 story when giving Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
“For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but that never stopped him from standing up for what is right,” Obama said in a statement on Sunday. “I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached and the way he lived his life.”
“Bill Russell was a trailblazer,” former NBA player and political activist Etan Thomas said in a text message on Sunday. Thomas said Russell was “an athlete who used his position and his platform to champion a bigger cause.” He added that “he was the type of athlete I wanted to be when I grew up”.
Russell’s influence in leading the 1961 strike may have been felt in 2020, when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play a playoff game in protest of police brutality. On Twitter, Russell wrote that he was “moved by all NBA players for standing up for what’s right”. In an article for The Players’ Tribune a few weeks later, Russell wrote“Blacks and Browns are still fight for justice, racists still hold the highest offices in the country.
Sharpton highlighted these actions as Russell’s legacy.
“I did it before some of these guys were born,” Sharpton said. “And I think what they need to understand is every time a basketball player or an athlete puts on a T-shirt to say something about Trayvon or ‘I’m Trayvon’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’ or whatever they want to do – “Get your knee on my neck! – they may not know it, but they are doing the Bill Russell.