Bill Russell paved the way for black coaches to challenge doubters

Bill Russell and Red Auerbach have reached an agreement.

Auerbach, the longtime Boston Celtics coach, told Russell he planned to retire from coaching. Russell and Auerbach had created a dynasty together, with Russell dominating in the center and Auerbach cementing their championship victories with plumes of celebratory cigar smoke.

They would each write down their five favorite coaches to succeed Auerbach and consider any name that landed on both lists.

They found no matches. Auerbach had already approached Russell about returning to work and continuing as a player, but Russell, who had witnessed the negative consequences of training on Auerbach, quickly rebuffed him.

Now, after the slates crossed between candidates, Russell reconsidered and figured no one else, beyond Auerbach, could coach Bill Russell quite like Bill Russell.

“When Red and I started discussing my becoming a coach, there were some things we didn’t have to say,” Russell wrote in his book about his friendship with Auerbach, “Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend”. in 2009. “For example, when I was finally named publicly, I had no idea I had just become the first African-American coach in major league history.”

It was 1966, and the accolade didn’t cross his mind until members of the Boston media informed him. “When I took the job, a reporter wrote seven articles about why I shouldn’t coach the Celtics,” Russell wrote.

Russell, who died Sunday at 88, would win two championships as Celtics head coach, his 10th and 11th championship rings. He would also coach the Seattle SuperSonics and Sacramento Kings and inspire a generation of black players to try their hand at coaching as well. The skepticism that accompanied his hiring in Boston may be less of an issue now, but remains a factor in whether black people are being hired to coach in the NBA today.

Bernie Bickerstaff, who is black, saw Russell take over as head coach of the Celtics just as he was about to enter a coaching life. I started as an assistant at the University of San Diego under Phil Woolpert, who had coached Russell at the University of San Francisco.

“At that time you didn’t think of anything like that,” said Bickerstaff, who became the SuperSonics coach in 1985. it seemed far-fetched.

Russell, the coach, imitated Russell the player. He was a longtime civil rights activist who coached the Celtics during the Reverend’s assassinations. Dr. Martin Luther King jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. “It rubbed a lot of Bostonians the wrong way,” Russell wrote in his 2009 book. “At the time, Boston was a totally segregated city—and I vehemently opposed segregation.”

He demanded respect and competed fiercely in a time when he had no assistant coaches. He played and coached the Celtics for three seasons before capping off the NBA’s most successful and enduring championship reign.

“It says a lot about who he was as a person and a humanitarian, if you understand the culture of this country, especially in certain places,” said Jim Cleamons, who is black and became the coach of the Dallas Mavericks in 1996.

Al Attles and Lenny Wilkens followed Russell as the next black NBA head coaches. Like Russell, they have led teams to championships. It took a while for the rest of the professional sports world to catch up. Frank Robinson, former high school basketball teammate of Russell, became Major League Baseball’s first black manager, in Cleveland, in 1975. Art Shell became the NFL’s first black head coach in the modern era for the Oakland Raiders in 1989.

“Bill Russell was an inspiration, period, with coaching,” Bickerstaff said. “But as a human being, at a time when it wasn’t popular to be someone our complexion, he stood up and represented. He wasn’t scared. He was authentic. He was a success, he was a leader on and off the pitch.

Russell became the fifth person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach when he was inducted as a coach last year.

At that point, something that seemed far-fetched when Bickerstaff burst into practice seemed common. Half of the NBA’s 30 coaches will be black heading into the 2022-23 season, including JB Bickerstaff, Bernie’s son and Cleveland Cavaliers coach.

But as recently as 2020, only four black coaches roamed the backstage of the NBA. “There’s a certain natural ebb and flow in hiring and firing coaches, but the numbers are too low right now,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said ahead of the 2020 Finals.

Other sports leagues continued to lag. Nearly two decades after Russell won his first championship as a coach, Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis has expressed doubts about black people’s ability to hold leadership positions.

“I don’t believe it’s bias,” Campanis said in a 1987 interview on ABC’s “Nightline.” a field director, or perhaps a general manager.”

MLB recently commemorated the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, but only two of its current managers — Dusty Baker of Houston and Dave Roberts of the Dodgers — are black.

In the NFL, former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores recently sued the league for discriminatory hiring practices. Flores is the son of Honduran immigrants. The NFL created a diversity advisory committee and required each team to hire a minority offensive coach after Flores’ lawsuit.

Russell hasn’t spoken often about being the first black coach in a major sports league. But after being hired, he felt the stress that awaited him as “the first Negro coach”, as he writes in his book.

He is comforted by the hope that his relationship with Auerbach will evolve from a superficial coach-player bond to a deeper friendship.

“So I started looking forward to this,” I wrote.

Russell left the Celtics in 1969 but took over the SuperSonics from 1973 to 1977. He guided Seattle to the franchise’s first-ever playoffs, but the success he found in Boston eluded him.

Russell coached one final season with the Sacramento Kings in 1987-88 before being fired and rejoining the front office after a 17-41 start.

“With a lot of really good players, it was hard for him to understand why regular players didn’t have the same drive, focus and commitment to winning that he did,” said Russell on the Board assistant Jerry Reynolds. Kings, in an interview Sunday. “There just aren’t a lot of people wired like that. That’s why they’re great. In some ways, it was hard for him to understand that. Most of the guys, they wanted to win. They didn’t have need to win every game like him.

Throughout, Russell has remained true to who he was when he coached.

Bickerstaff recalled Russell gifting a set of golf clubs to one of Woolpert’s sons instead of signing him an autograph – an act Russell was known to have staunchly refused throughout his career.

Cleamons said an encore introduced his high school team to Russell shortly after winning the Ohio State Championship. Russell barely looked up from his soup. I hated being interrupted during a meal.

Cleamons understood the mindset after reading Russell’s autobiography.

Before being considered a basketball player, before being considered a coach, Russell wanted to be considered a human being.

“He looked a bit like Muhammad Ali,” Reynolds said. “He was always who he was. Society and people changed. Things changed to fit more like they should have been from the start.