Overdue Lesson

For decades sports aficionados have raved about how Bill Russell’s skills and dominance have cemented him as one of the greatest players in NBA history. Great timing, a generous owner and hall of fame teammates helped make him the greatest winner in American team sports.

Amidst all of that championship gleam, Russell and his family met a dark side of those days and times which is rarely discussed.

It would only be fitting that the nation’s first African-American president would present William Felton Russell with the Congressional Medal of Freedom last month. The guy who preceded him more than likely wouldn’t have known he was speaking to the first African-American coach in modern sports.

My dad was good for telling me to look further than what I was reading. He did it with Muhammad Ali and he did it with Bill Russell. With Russell it got heavy early because I was a young Sixers fan and I hated the Celtics. By this time the C’s had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Chris Ford along with Robert Parrish, Cedric Maxwell and Tiny Archibald — who always seemed to come between my Sixers and a trip to the finals. So there was no love for Boston, no way, no how and no chance.

My Pop finally said one day, “If you knew what that man went through and still managed to do what he did, you’d be amazed.” He knew that would get me goin’.  I dug into Bill Russell’s story. What I came away with was a story of  courage perseverance and overall triumph in the midst of  bigotry, hate and racism.

Russell lived his entire life dealing with and seemingly escaping the racism that he would encounter. Whether it was in his native Monroe, Louisiana where he moved with his parents into a housing project which were deemed “safer” or at the University of San Francisco where despite winning a national championship he and other Black teammates were jeered by the same student body who they shared classes with.  After winning a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics, a privilege almost denied him by Avery Brundage, Russell joined the Celtics for the 1956-57 season.

Russell soon find out life in the Northernmost portion of the United States had it’s own sick and twisted form of racism which tested the very mettle of his manhood.

In Russell’s second season in Beantown traveled with a contingent of NBA All-Stars on tour. While in North Carolina, Russell and other Black teammates were denied hotel rooms and other services while in North Carolina.

This was the norm in Boston and anywhere Russell and the Celtics traveled, boycotting exhibition games in protest of being denied services in many cities.

In the city Russell represented is where the sting of racism was felt the most.

 “It stood out, a wall which understanding cannot penetrate. You are a Negro. You are less. It covered every area. A living, smarting, hurting, smelling, greasy substance which covered you. A morass to fight from.” – Excerpt from Russell’s memoir “Go Up For Glory”

Boston was home to Cripsus Attucks and Malcolm X, two powerful figures in the annals of American history. Now there was Bill Russell, who for all intentions was the NBA’s first Black superstar.  He followed Earl Lloyd and Chuck Cooper — who paved the way for Black players in the NBA. In the midst of eleven world title reigns Russell, faced discrimination in the printed media and even from the fans who came to see him play. It was a situation which grew more hostile regardless of the number of titles. Russell lashed back at the Boston media, it’s fans and the culture of hate which they chose to embrace. He labeled Boston as a city which was a “flea market for racism”. No one was spared Russell’s wrath, he had been a man who had been pushed by Jim Crow since his youth, but refused to allow it as a man.

The more Russell spoke the more militant his tone became. In an interview with Sports Illustrated Russell was quoted as saying,  “I dislike most white people because they are people… I like most blacks because I am black”, expressing that “human” was a negative trait and “black” was a positive trait which were mutually exclusive. Naturally the white press would point to a white teammate and ask Russell if he hated that particular person, Russell was painted into a corner with his words by those that knew in what context he was speaking. The media portrayed Russell as ungrateful for overlooking his high school coach George Powles college coach Phil Woolpert (integrated USF Basketball) and Red Auerbach, all of whom are white and played roles in Russell’s basketball life. According to the media he  just lumped them all together. If Woolpert and Auerbach went as far as to play huge roles in the integration of their respective teams they must first be aware of the circumstances that come with integration and secondly, come into the situation with understanding and their undying support for those individuals involved. In a declaration to the fans that he deemed as hypocritical Russell stated: “You owe the public the same it owes you, nothing! I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies.” Russell by this time wore a label issued by the FBI as an “arrogant negro who wouldn’t sign autographs for white children.”

It all came to a  boil when vandals broke into his home, spray painted racist graffiti on the walls and defecated in the very beds that his family slept in. The proverbial “island”  that Russell was on had  gotten that much smaller – alienating himself from everyone but his teammates.

There was another Black Athlete who understood Russell’s plight – Muhammad Ali was in the middle of a fight to keep his heavyweight title while staging his protest against the war in Viet Nam. Russell in turn saw the challenges Ali faced and openly supported the champion’s cause along with Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor and others.

The world as Bill Russell had known it was slowly spinning out of control the war in Viet Nam, the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had taken their toll on his political and social conscience. Basketball had become trivial in the grand scheme of things. After Russell’s final championship in 1969 (he was a player/coach for the Celtics from 1966-69) he cut all ties with Boston. Russell shunned the victory parade, the retirement of his jersey in 1972 and even his induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, due largely in part to his non-relationship with the media.

In recent years Russell has become more engaging to the Boston press and the city as  a whole. Boston in turn has finally embraced Russell as one of it’s own.

Ali, Brown and Russell provided our fathers, uncles and grandfathers with a rod to put in our backs to continue to pass along to our sons and so forth,

Intertwined are the careers and lives of these three giants: Gold medal, racism, championships, racism, iconic status, racism early retirement leaving fans and ownership salty, bad press and finally acceptance sprinkled with a little glitter.

13 Responses to “Overdue Lesson”

  1. Matthew Fudge says:

    Wow. How many black athletes, past and present, could’ve withstood with what Russell, Jim Brown, Curt Flood, Oscar Robertson, etc. had to deal with?

  2. Temple3 says:

    Great stuff.

    And who the hell are those children to expect him to sign autographs. “Bacdafucup, you little crumb snatcher!

  3. TheLastPoet says:

    Man, what a great way to come back to the site. Just read everything from the Jalen/Grant “Tom-gate” spectacle to this great history lesson on Bill Russell. Ron, Mizzo, and Okori, yall are puttin in work. And it’s great to see the old heads still showing love – and dropping much knowledge and edification – in the comments section: T3, Modi, Origin, Miranda, Sankofa, Allen, erbody! You all are like family I’ve never had the pleasure to actually meet around here… I’ve missed you guys!

  4. Ron Glover says:

    TLP – Glad to have you back, and thanks for those words. I still like to recharge our batteries now and then with a little somethin’ like this. I hope all is well with you.

    We missed you too Fam – believe that!

  5. Ron Glover says:

    TLP: And The Core keeps us in line.

  6. CAvard says:

    I grew up 40 minutes outside Boston and the Celtics were always my favorite team. Bill Russell is the best athlete to ever play for a Boston sports team but Ted Williams is the one that gets all the glory. I think that’s wrong. Russell’s life on the court and off has inspired me in more ways than one. Thanks Ron for providing a valuable and unique look at an important man in American life.

  7. MODI says:

    Hey LP, great to hear from you! Was wondering where you disappeared to!

    Nice piece. “Russell by this time wore a label issued by the FBI as an ‘arrogant negro who wouldn’t sign autographs for white children.'”

    Very interesting (or not) that “white” children were singled out instead of just children.

    Also, interesting was the media perception of him and Red back then. Perhaps that compelled him to recently write “Red and Me” which was a great read. They had a mutual respect that was based on equality, not hierarchy or paternalism. I got the sense that Russell wrote it for many coaches today to understand. Sure wish Larry Brown had read it before coming to the Knicks and blasting on Marbury in the press.

  8. eric daniels says:

    Bill Russell was my hero ever since I was a kid in the 70’s in the 7th grade and I read second wind in the library ( before the internet kiddies) it was the second book I ever checked out thanks to my grandmother getting me a library card. I think that book and her taking me to the public library saved my life as I went through this journey I saw many friends either go to jail get addicted to drugs sell drugs or lose their battles of being ‘Black In America’.

    Russell’s book taught me that being an intellectual or a being sensitive curious person wasn’t wrong and his life story was one of always moving forward and being proud, strong and independent. I have followed that path ever since. Russell was my first sports hero I ever admired for just being himself, and he taught me to look deeper into what constitutes a ‘role model’ than someone who can jump high, sing well, or act humble. For a 13 year old in 1979 that was important because I could have gone either way.

  9. MODI says:

    ED, I appreciated that post. Deep.

    I’ve had Second Wind on my bookshelf forever, but never read it. Maybe I should.

  10. Mizzo says:

    Thanks for that E.

  11. Temple3 says:

    It is profoundly absurd, and I mean that in the deepest possible sense, that Jerry West became the league logo…for whatever reason.

    I’m not bashing the league. For all I know, they went to Russell first and he declined. I can certainly understand his reasoning, if that was the case. Nonetheless, the paradox of this “honor” contrasted with his success at West’s expense (to say nothing of Chamberlain’s) cannot be lost on the fan of history.

    I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying it’s absurd.

    Russell is the NBA’s greatest iconic figure…just as Jim Brown is that for the NFL. In baseball, that position is undeniably held by Babe Ruth. If those sports had logos, it would like immortalizing John Elway and Stan Musial, respectively.

  12. eric daniels says:

    Temple to me Bill Russell is the greatest American Sportsman this country has ever produced, his accomplishments speak for themselves

    2 national championships
    60 game winning streak at USF
    1956 Gold Medal
    11 NBA Championships

    You take into account every year Russell played his teams either made the championship round of his sport or won it outright

    only twice did Russell not win the NBA Championship and that was because of

    1. A sprained ankle in game 7 against the St. Louis Hawks in 1957 (the Celtics lost in overtime) after that, the Celtics won 8 straight championships

    2. They lost to the greatest team in NBA History the 1966-1967 Philadephia 76ers

    Russell revolutionized the game by using intellect, speed and defensive prowess and in the process made the Celtics a dynasty in world sports.

    The first African- American Man to coach a professional team and win a championship, an intellectual a Civil Rights advocate of the first rank. Russell is the greatest player in NBA history.

  13. KevDog says:

    I pretty much hate all things Celtics. But I’ve nothing but love for Bill Russell.

    I loved what he told Kenny Smith. Smith said that when they started recruiting European players to the NBA, he was bitching about it to Russell and Russell told him to stop right there. Told him that he must never be on the side of exclusion.

    He’s a wise man and great one.

    ED. As much as I iove Russell. I’m going to go with Paul Robeson.