Basketball’s Bill Russell

Boston Celtics

Bill RussellIn basketball, Bill Russell was the Greatest Of All Time. More than MJ or Magic or Kobe or Lebron. The center led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back national championships and captained the US team that won the Olympic gold medal at the 1956 Games.

He won 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons, eight straight between the 1958-59 and 1965-66 seasons with the Boston Celtics. Two of those titles were as player-coach; Russell was the first black coach in ANY major U.S. professional sport. A five-time NBA MVP and 12-time All-Star, he’s also the greatest sports figure in the Boston market, greater than Tom Brady in football and even the great Bobby Orr in hockey. He joined the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1975 and as a coach in 2021.

Bill Russell started playing when being a black player in eastern Massachusetts was difficult. In an interview for CBS in 2021, he acknowledged not enjoying playing in Boston. The Boston Herald newspaper, reporting a game in which he got a triple-double (25 points, 20 rebounds, 10 blocked shots), merely noted that he was fortunate to be playing with Bob Cousy.

Cousy, now 94, said: Russell “fought the good fight, obviously, on the floor, but he fought the good fight off the floor, fighting racism all his life. Sticking his tongue out at the opponent. That’s not easy to do. People give up things to take a stand, and Russell simply never cared… Russell just let it flow.”

Facing bigotry

From the Boston Globe: “In a 1987 essay, [his] daughter… wrote that her father had faced ‘the worst kind of unbridled bigotry’ from Boston fans and sportswriters, and detailed racist attacks the Russell family was subjected to while living in Massachusetts…

“In the essay titled ‘Growing Up with Privilege and Prejudice,’… Karen Russell described how her father sought to separate his feelings about playing basketball for the Celtics and playing for the city of Boston. She detailed the racist vandalism the Russell family’s Reading home faced once when they were out of town and listed the racist abuse Bill Russell endured from fans.”

The Monroe, Louisiana native who grew up in Oakland, CA, was at the 1963 March on Washington, spoke out about bigotry, and backed Muhammad Ali when he refused to fight in Vietnam.

He was frenemies with Wilt Chamberlain, the Philadelphia 76ers center. Russell was a lousy house guest. Wilt: “Bill would come to my house on Thanksgiving night because we had Philly vs. Boston the next night. He would sleep in my bed and take some food, and he would go out there and whip my butt.”

“Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect, and inclusion that stamped into the DNA of our league,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. I saw Bill Russell at the IBM Country Club in Endicott, NY, at an exhibition game between the Celtics and the 76ers in the mid-1960s. Even though he wasn’t the tallest player, his presence was gigantic. Bill Rusell was 88.

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