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.
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.
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