In 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.”
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.
It could have been in TV Guide or another magazine, or a newspaper article. All I know is that, during the run of the TV show The Rifleman (1958-1963), I knew that Chuck Connors had been a professional athlete before he became an actor.
He played basketball with the Boston Celtics. In 1946, Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors was the first NBA player to shatter a backboard, doing so during a pre-game warm-up in the Boston Garden.
The future actor also played baseball. Before the 1940 season, he was signed by his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers as an amateur free agent. Though somewhat successful in the minor leagues, he got into only one game with that major league team, in 1949.
On October 10, 1950, he was traded, with Dee Fondy, to the Chicago Cubs for Hank Edwards and cash. He spent part of the 1951 season with the Cubs, appearing in 66 games, 57 of them as a first baseman, batting .239.
“In a 1997 biography titled ‘The Man Behind the Rifle’, author David Fury says that ‘Chuck”‘Connors acquired his nickname while an athlete playing first base. He had a habit of calling to the pitcher: “Chuck it to me, baby, chuck it to me!”
His IMDB record begins in 1952. But he’s best known for playing Lucas McCain in 168 episodes of The Rifleman. The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network TV Shows, by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, have a great description of the show.
“The setting was the town of North Fork, NM, whose marshall seemed incapable of handling any of the numerous desperadoes who infested the series without Lucas.” I’m sure I watched it a lot in the day, and it’s still available on MeTV.
Lucas McCain was ranked #32 in TV Guide’s list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” in the 20 June 2004 issue. He raised Mark (Johnny Crawford) by himself.
Chuck spent a season on Arrest and Trial, a cop show with Ben Gazzara, which I don’t remember.
Connors was on another western, Branded (1965-1966). “Jason McCord, the only survivor of the Battle of Bitter Creek, is court-martialed and kicked out of the Army because of his alleged cowardice. Rather than demean the good name of the Army commander who was actually to blame for the massacre, McCord travels the Old West trying to restore his good name and reputation.
And my sisters and I would reenact the opening theme, which I can hear in my mind’s ear to this day:
“All but one man died, There at Bitter Creek. And they say he ran away. Branded! Marked with a coward’s shame. What do you do when you’re branded, will you fight for your name?
“He was innocent. Not a charge was true. But the world would never know. Branded! Scorned as the one who ran. What do you do when you’re branded, and you know you’re a man?
“Wherever you go for the rest of your life, you must prove… You’re a man.”
And in the intro, the officer would break McCord’s sword over his knee. We would take a thin tree branch and break it in the same way. Or more often, take this paper covering that came with the dry cleaning and tear it.
Oddly, I don’t remember the show itself very much.
Here’s some trivia. “He suffered almost the same fate in each of his two television western series. In The Rifleman: The Vaqueros (1961), he was stripped to the waist, tied to a tree, and left to die under a scorching sun by a group of Mexican bandits. And in Branded: Fill No Glass for Me: Part 2 (1965), he was stripped to the waist, tied to a tree, and left to die under a scorching sun by a group of Indian warriors. (In both cases he survived.)”
I didn’t see him much after that, except in an occasional guest appearance, and two episodes of Roots. No, I did NOT see Werewolf.
Chuck Connors was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1991.
Born: April 10, 1921, in Brooklyn, New York City, NY Died: November 10, 1992 (age 71) in Los Angeles, CA
I could tell you, without looking it up, who won the World Series every year in the 1960s. For the 2010s, I could recall only four. And two of them, the 2017 Houston Astros and the 2018 Boston Red Sox were arguably tarnished.
After the decline of my New York Yankees after their 1964 Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, I started following their crosstown rivals, the Mets. But they were pretty terrible. They put this young pitcher, Tom Seaver, into the rotation in 1967, and he went 16-13, with a 2.76 ERA. Pretty good on a team that went 61-101. In 1968, the Mets were 73-89, their most wins ever. Seaver was 16-12 but lowered his ERA to 2.20.
By 1969, the leagues divided into East and West divisions. Shockingly, the Mets amazed sports fans with a 100-62 record. They swept the West’s Atlanta Braves in three games. They were widely assumed to be the underdogs to the Baltimore Orioles with the Robinsons Franks and Brooks, among other stars. Yet the Mets won the World Series four games to one. Tom Seaver in 1969 went 25-7, with a 2.21 ERA.
A letter writer in the Boston Globe remembers this. “That year, Seaver had made a statement that ‘if the Mets can win the World Series, then we can get out of Vietnam,’ an extraordinary act in those days for a professional athlete.”
I followed Seaver through his career with the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox. I forgot he pitched for the Red Sox in 1986, but he was injured during the 1986 Series, so didn’t play against the winners, NYM. It was just as well for the legacy of the greatest Met. He died in late August in his sleep of complications of Lewy body dementia and Covid-19.
For a couple years in the mid-1960s, John Thompson was a backup center for Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics. It was probably before I saw the Celtics in an exhibition game at the IBM Country Club in Endicott, NY. The NBA’s Celtics and the New York Knicks were my teams then.
I didn’t become a follower of the men’s college game until the late 1970s. I tended to root for the teams in the Big East, which was formed in 1979 and featured Syracuse, the premiere team in upstate New York. But I’d root for any BE team, including Georgetown, against non-conference opponents.
John Thompson inherited a Georgetown Hoyas team which had been 3–23 the year before. He led them to a .500 record in season two. “By his third season in 1974–75, Georgetown qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1943.”
So when North Carolina beat Georgetown in the March Madness finals in 1982, I was disappointed. And when the Hoyas beat Houston in 1984, making John Thompson the first black coach to win the Final Four, I was quite thrilled. And when underdog Villanova, from the Big East, beat Georgetown in the championship game in 1985, it was actually OK. “Over 27 years, Thompson’s Hoyas went 596–239 (.714), running off a streak of 24 postseason appearances – 20 in the NCAA tournament and 4 in the NIT.”
Thompson’s coaching legacy includes the recruitment and development of four players in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, and Allen Iverson.” Iverson thanked Thompson for “saving my life” in an Instagram post.
Sean Gregory wrote in an appreciation for Time, “No coach of his generation, in any sport, was more influential.” John Thompson died in late August.
Last week, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play basketball against the Orlando Magic. Other NBA teams followed suit, and players from the WNBA, MLB, and other sports did likewise. And I felt that maybe, just maybe progress is slowly being made.
Sports activism, of course, is not new. Here is Athletes and activism: The long, defiant history of sports protests. One could argue whether some of the particulars are actually protesting, but that’s a quibble.
In my recollection, this story is one of the reasons I always loved Bill Russell. In 1961, “while in Lexington, Kentucky, for an exhibition before the 1961-62 season, Russell and the other black members of the Boston Celtics were refused service at a restaurant. They boycotted the game, a groundbreaking statement at a time when blacks were still expected not to complain publicly about discrimination.”
I remember a photo, probably in Ebony and/or JET from June 4, 1967. Jim Brown, Russell, Lew Alcindor, and “other prominent black athletes met in Cleveland in a show of support for Muhammad Ali, who had refused induction into the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector. Two weeks later, he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, and stripped of his heavyweight title.” Alcindor, who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, continued to be an outspoken advocate for change.
Mexico City, 1968
I was watching the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium after winning the gold and the bronze, respectively, in the 200-meter run. “They stepped onto the podium shoeless but decked out in black socks and gloves. Then they raised their fists above their bowed heads to silently protest racial discrimination.”
It was not a spontaneous act. “It was only months after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr… In the lead-up to the Olympics, Smith, and Carlos helped organize the Olympic Project for Human Rights…” The group saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to agitate for better treatment of black athletes and black people around the world… Though the project initially proposed a boycott of the Olympics altogether, Smith and Carlos decided to compete in the hopes they could use their achievements as a platform for broader change.”
A massacre in Mexico took place just 10 days before the opening of the Summer Games. The Mexican government “killed four (the government’s official count) or 3,000 students. Carlos and Smith were deeply affected by these events and the plight of marginalized people around the world.” Smith told Smithsonian magazine in 2008, “We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”
The third man on the podium, Peter Norman of Australia, “became part of the protest, too, albeit in a less direct way.” Norman “supported his fellow Olympians’ protest, in part because of the intolerance he had witnessed in Australia.” His backing cost him his track-and-field career.
Black Lives Matter
In the 2010s, several prominent players wore apparel bringing attention to the situation on the streets. “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts were worn by Cavaliers teammates LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and other NBA players before their games on Dec. 8, 2014. Those were, unfortunately, the last words of Eric Garner in July of that year. And of George Floyd almost six years later.
In July 2016, members of the three WNBA teams began wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts to WNBA games to protest the recent deaths of unarmed black people in police custody.
That autumn, Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem started a movement in the NFL. In early June 2020, the NFL’s Roger Goodell admitted the league was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.”
Only a week earlier, the NFL releases a statement on the death of George “Floyd and the ensuing global protests… The reactions were … in “the vein of, ‘You could have led the fight against police brutality and racial injustice four years ago, but instead, you worked against peaceful protesters like Kaepernick.'” Indeed, Kaepernick is “now a 32-year-old free agent quarterback who hasn’t played in the NFL since the last week of the 2016 season.”
As Slate noted: “Think back to the outrage of certain white NFL fans [most prominently, IMPOTUS] over the peaceful sideline protests of Kaepernick and other players against police brutality. It’s a worldview that grants Black people the right to work and entertain, to ‘shut up and play,’ but not to be full human beings or coequal members of the populace. It is not a stretch to say that this attitude is a bedrock of American racism.”
After George Floyd
The dynamics changed when the Bucks and the other NBA teams stopped playing. What they did was “several orders of magnitude greater than any act of protest we have seen in major American team sports. With the simple act of refusing to work under present conditions, they brought an entire lucrative industry to a halt and have undoubtedly brought terror to some of the country’s powerful people.
“The NBA is a league run by billionaires, in a country in which billionaires wield obscene amounts of political influence. ‘But what do the players actually want?’ people will ask, many of whom not remotely interested in the answer to that question. Well, for starters, they want more power in shaping the conditions of the country they live in. And now they unquestionably have that.
“The fact that it was the Milwaukee Bucks who took this stand is crucial in several respects. The Bucks play in the same state where Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times. In the wake of their decision, the Bucks soon found themselves on a conference call with both the attorney general ( the drug crime lawyers in Festus) and lieutenant governor of Wisconsin.
“But the Bucks also have the best record in the NBA and are one of the two or three teams considered most likely to win this year’s bubble championship… If the Bucks refuse to play… the general premise of this entire NBA playoffs is instantly invalidated.”
“The bubble has thus far been a smashing success. The level of play has been terrific, the television presentation has deftly mitigated the absence of fans, and, most importantly, there have been no virus outbreaks…” For an extraordinary two days, “all of this was put in jeopardy, because the league’s players, a group of people to whom sports are more important than literally anyone else in America, collectively declared to all Americans that certain things are far more important than sports.”
Sports analyst Jared Kushner tweeted: “What I’d love to see from the players in the NBA–again they have the luxury of taking a night off from work, most Americans don’t…I’d like to see them start moving into concrete solutions that are productive.”
From the First SIL’s lips. “Players needed something. Owners were in a position to give it to them. The asks were reasonable. They wanted a bigger voice internally. The NBA agreed to establish a social justice coalition, one represented by players, coaches, and owners.” It will “tackle a broad range of issues, from civic engagement [including voting initiatives] to advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.”
Still, I continue to be pained by the poignant statement of Doc Rivers, the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. “It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.”
Being a well-paid black athlete in America doesn’t prevent one from becoming a dead black person in America. Two-thirds of players in the NFL are large (scary!) black men. About three-quarters of NBA players are tall (scary!) black men. They are not immune to what has happened to, among many others, Stephon Clark or Philando Castile.
After retired basketball star Kobe Bryant died, I felt a bit like a cultural anthropologist. Beyond the tragic loss of life, I was interested in how others reacted to his passing.
I wrote about Kobe Bryant less often than I did the Kobe, Japan earthquake. Once was a passing reference to him which was mostly about his coach Phil Jackson. For whatever reason, I lost interest in NBA basketball this century. And I was pretty enthusiastic back in the days of Magic Johnson’s Lakers versus Larry Bird’s Celtics.
One thing about me is that I tend to absorb overwhelming grief. It was not so much my own but my sense of the collective shock of his many fans and colleagues. Even if it wasn’t my specific pain, I can remember how I felt when John Lennon and Rod Serling passed.
For instance, Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times wrote: “I’m screaming right now, cursing into the sky, crying into my keyboard, and I don’t care who knows it.” It was hardly the only anguish I saw.
Many pieces noted that Life Is Not Promised. In fact, Kobe himself said the same thing in Newsweek shortly after 9/11/2001. “We Never Know When Our Time Here Will Be Over.”
Sports Illustrated started their story with variation on that angle. “Thirteen-year-old Gianna Bryant and her father are gone, and that is not quite how the Bryants’ story will be told, but it’s how we should think about it first.”
The news cycle
Naturally, there were discussions about how only Kobe and, eventually, then his daughter, were mentioned when there were seven others on board, including two other basketball-playing teens. Part of it is that it was only known initially that Kobe and “some others” were riding.
In fact, there was a depressing reason. Reportedly, Kobe’s wife Vanessa “learned about the death of her husband and daughter at the same time as the rest of the world. Before police notified her of her family’s tragic loss, the news was leaked by TMZ – a tabloid news channel.”
The story was noteworthy at a certain level because nine people were killed. Its prominence days later is tied to fame. TV writer Ken Levine (MASH, Cheers) noted what would have happened if he had died with a famous baseball player. “if we had crashed there would have been news bulletins breaking into every network, huge front page headlines the next day and they all would say, ‘Baseball star, Tony Gwynn and a passenger were killed in a auto accident.'”
For his part, Gywnn, who died of cancer in 2014, “felt it was wrong that one person should be valued over another just because they’re famous.” But as Levine opined, “You can’t change the way the world operates.”
Early on, some people complained that “no one” was talking about the 2003 rape accusation against Kobe and subsequent settlement. Yes, it wasn’t the lead immediately after the horrific accident. But by day two of the story, I heard it mentioned regularly, in passing to be sure.
For my part, I was totally unaware of his Mamba Sports Academy, founded in 2018. The page quotes Kobe Bryant in noting, “Mamba Mentality isn’t about seeking a result. It’s about the journey and the approach. It’s a way of life.”
I did see his Oscar-winning short film Dear Basketball, about achieving his dream and then needing to walk away.
No less authority than Magic Johnson considered Kobe Bryant the greatest Laker ever. I’d say he was up there with George Mikan, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic himself. If my sense of personal loss isn’t as great as others, I still recognize the magnitude of his passing.
Because the helicopter was not equipped with a terrain warning system that could have alerted pilot to the hillside where he crashed, expect that the technology will be mandated more often.
So rest in peace, basketball coach Christina Mauser, who leaves behind a husband and three children; Alyssa Altobelli and her parents, John and Keri; Payton Chester and her mom, Sarah; and pilot Ara Zobayan.