Russell Paved Initial Road for Equality


This month, The Lead wants to pay tribute to the black activists who have played their part in helping move the NBA and society forward with their wisdom, progressive-thinking and courage.

The state of basketball and the NBA itself can be something we take for granted. It is important to keep the stories alive of those who sacrificed for equality in a league that is so diverse today. Truly being more than a game, these heroes of yesterday walked so the heroes of today can run. Activists like LeBron James, Stephen Jackson, Chris Paul, Jaylen Brown, Maya Moore and countless other NBA and WNBA athletes are fighting the same fight like legends before them. 

Icon On and Off the Court

11 championship rings, five-time MVP, 21,000+ rebounds, 14,500+ points, and over 40,000 minutes played. His resume is like no other. The illustrious career of Bill Russell is the model for what we look for in NBA superstars today. On the court, arguably the greatest NBA player of all time. Off the court, though, Russell was a prominent figure in the United States’ fight for equality in the Civil Rights Movement. 

Participating in the 1963 March on Washington, he used his platform to voice the anguish his people faced, defended Muhammed Ali when he refused to serve in the US army over religious reasons, and became the first black head coach in organized sports for the Boston Celtics. Russell was practically a pioneer on and off the court, but the treatment he received back from the country and the city of Boston is something that isn’t talked about enough. 

Menace to Society

Russell was viewed as a menace to society. He was outspoken, black and dominated a sport that was predominantly white. Living in Boston, he was notoriously known for not signing autographs. Russell was one who believed in shaking a fans hand, or even having a conversation with them. He was so hated amongst the country that the FBI even had a file on the Celtics center. The file described him as, “an arrogant negro who won’t sign autographs for white children”. 

In his time in Boston, he endured being hurled with racial slurs and death threats. Even in his own suburban home north of Boston, he was subjected to targeted vandalism. Crude racial slurs were spray painted in his home and one of the intruders defecated on Russell’s bed. 

Russell also is the only player in NBA history to ever have his number retired twice. Why? In his 1972 jersey retirement, the Boston Garden was almost empty. He refused a number retirement ceremony in the first place because of his relationship with the city of Boston. Until he was convinced to do so, he hung his No. 6 jersey in the rafters with a handful of fans, family and friends. With no camera or celebration, Russell felt it would be a contradiction with his time in Boston. Winning 11 championships in 13 years, Russell felt it was wrong to celebrate a career with a city that he had more bad times than good. 

In 1999, Russell finally had the ceremony he deserved in the Boston Garden. Stars like Aretha Franklin, Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, Muhammed Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar showed out for the Boston legend. He hung his jersey up to the rafters with fans and family. 

Voice of the Voiceless

Russell, today, still doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. The first black basketball star had immense pressure on him every night. He constantly had a target on his back. If he lost, racist Boston fans would spew anger on him. If he won, the opposing team’s fans would do the same. To even prevail and deliver on 11 championships under these conditions is something that is unimaginable. Every night, Russell knew he had to lace up and represent a city that didn’t love him, but loved his talent. He did what most of us wouldn’t have the courage to do; he kept fighting.

Today, NBA players fight this same fight. Bill Russell is still alive and healthy. These events of hate and racism only took place within the last 60 years. As a country we have progressed, but there is still a lot of work left. Russell is the blueprint for what a star athlete should do with their platform. Standing up for what’s right and fighting for equality is just the beginning. Without Bill Russell, the league wouldn’t be what it is today: a place that represents diversity, equality, and a voice for the voiceless.   

Follow us on Twitter @CelticsLead for the latest Celtics news and insight. 

About Matt DeCeglie

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