“We foolishly lionize athletes and make them heroes because they can hit a ball or catch one. The only athletes we should bother with attaching any particular importance to are those like [Muhammad] Ali, whom we can admire for themselves and not for their incidental athletic abilities.”
Bill Russell not only revolutionized the game of basketball with his height and shot blocking abilities, but he also drastically altered the role of the black athlete before going on to become the NBA’s first black head coach. When Russell first entered the league, there were only 15 other African Americans playing professional basketball. Racism and prejudice still existed in organizations, and often logistics such as lodging and food were made difficult due to segregated establishments. Throughout his career, Russell remained outspoken and opinionated, attacking these issues and becoming a vocal role model for black athletes in America. Ultimately, he would become one of the NBA’s greatest champions, as well as one of its greatest men.
Like so many African Americans of his generation, Bill Russell was born into poor financial circumstances in the rural South, although his family eventually moved west to California in pursuit of better jobs and opportunities. As he grew older and taller, Russell began playing basketball, a game in which he showed initial promise despite his awkward height on the court. He would go on to play college basketball at the University of San Francisco, the only school that offered him a scholarship. Bill didn’t care though; he was just excited to go to college and have the opportunity to escape the racism and poverty of his childhood. While at USF, Russell emerged as a dominant force on the court, averaging over 20 points and 20 rebounds per game. He also introduced vertical defense and smothering shot blocking to the game of basketball, two aspects that define the game today. Eventually, he would go on to lead his school to two NCAA national championships, becoming a first team All-American and Final Four MVP along the way.
Russell’s success in college basketball was not without its dark moments, however. Racism still existed throughout the country, and it manifested itself several times throughout his collegiate career. Notable instances include a game in Oklahoma City in which none of the city’s hotels would put up Russell and his fellow black teammates, as well as the time before a tournament game in which the fans yelled “Globetrotters” at the players and threw coins at them. Russell didn’t let this deter him, however, and he continued to work hard to become the best player he could. He eventually was drafted by the Boston Celtics, where he would go on to become a forceful player and champion.
Russell entered the NBA in 1956, a time in which black athletes were being thrust into the political spotlight amidst the chaos of the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. Bill didn’t underestimate this significance, either. “It is the first time in four centuries that the American Negro can create his own history,” Russell wrote in the 1960s. “To be part of this is one of the most significant things that can happen.” He was never afraid to speak his mind, and did what no one else had previously dared to do when he called out the league on its lack of diversity. He also travelled to Africa several times throughout his career, seeking to reestablish his roots and form a connection to his heritage. Perhaps most notable, however, was the fact that Russell and his fellow black Celtics teammates boycotted an exhibition game in Kentucky after a local restaurant refused to seat them. This bold and unprecedented move was one of the first times that black athletes had called attention to the discrimination they faced and marked a change in the role of the black athlete.
Russell went on to lead his Celtics to 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons, establishing a dominant league dynasty. He also became the player-coach of the Celtics in 1966, thus marking the first time an African American had been named the head coach of an NBA team. This accomplishment occurred nearly 16 years after the league had first integrated its players, a remarkably long time given the nature of integration in society and other sports. Russell led his team to a final title in 1969 before retiring from the game, leaving behind a legacy of greatness in which he redefined the nature of basketball with his height and shot blocking strategies. His most important contribution, however, was the role he played in giving African Americans power and a voice in professional sports, as well as the strides he made in finally breaking the color barrier of NBA management and coaching.
Merlino, Doug. “Bill Russell, Civil Rights Hero and Inventor of Airborne BasketballCeltics.” Bleacher Report. N.p., 29 Apr. 2011. Web. 06 Jan. 2013.