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.