By Neil Beldock
There are many people including ex-players, fans and members of the media who would unequivocally identify Bill Russell as the greatest basketball player of all time. And those who advocate this position certainly have evidence to present in support of their argument.
Although many are aware of his basketball prowess, many may not be aware of the work Russell exhibited as a social activist at a very tumultuous time in America.
Standing 6 feet 10 inches tall and weighing 220 pounds Russell was the cornerstone and emotional leader of the Boston Celtics . He led the Celtics to an unprecedented 8 consecutive NBA championships, and 11 championships in 13 seasons.
As a basketball player, Russell redefined the game by exhibiting how a game could be dominated from the defensive end of the floor by utilizing his ability to rebound and block shots. What made his shot blocking so unique was that he not only blocked shots but was able to block the shot and keep the ball in play leading to numerous Celtic fast breaks and easy baskets propelling the team to the unprecedented string of championships documented above.
Russell was a 5-time NBA Most Valuable Player award recipient, a 12-time NBA All-Star and led the league in rebounding four times. Russell averaged 22.5 rebounds per game over a 13-year NBA career. He also averaged 15.1 points per game for his career as well. It should be noted that during the time-span when Russell played (1956-1969) statistics for blocked-shots were not kept. If they were there is no argument that this category would have been dominated by Russell.
Prior to joining the Celtics, Russell led the University of San Francisco Dons to consecutive NCAA championships in 1955 & 1956. During those years, as the cornerstone of the team, the Dons won a then NCAA record 55 consecutive games. He also was captain of the 1956 gold medal winning Olympic basketball team.
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden referred to Russell as “the greatest defensive man I’ve ever seen”.
But the point of this article is not to heap accolades on Russell as a basketball player, well deserved as they may be and are. The focus is to introduce readers to the work Russell performed as a social and civil rights activist.
At a time when black athletes were preferred by their team(s) to not be involved with political or social issues, Russell was deeply entrenched in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.
Russell participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
Also in 1963 he traveled to racially and prejudicially driven Jackson, Mississippi after the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers to meet with Evers’ brother to see how he could help. Later that year, amidst death threats, Russell conducted the first ever integrated basketball camp in the state of Mississippi.
In 1967 Russell, together with football great Jim Brown and young UCLA basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then still Lew Alcindor) stood beside Muhammad Ali in support of Ali’s refusal to and of military induction. It is reported that Russell played a leading role in putting forth questions as it related to the governments actions against Ali.
What cannot be overstated is how controversial and brave it was for athletes, and specifically black athletes, to take the kind of stand that Russell and the others were taking in supporting Ali back in 1967.
What may now seem like just another display of social activism and protest was not as simple as that in 1967, and certainly not when it involved black athletes. This was a monumental moment within and of the civil rights movement and was not welcomed or embraced by the otherwise white-world.
Ramifications would be felt and linger in the future, and specifically in the Boston area as it related to Bill Russell.
Years later, towards the end of his career, Russell was speaking at a dinner in Redding, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Russell said that he was going to “spend the rest of my life in Redding”, and that he “felt welcomed” in Redding. But when he attempted to purchase a house in Redding, people circulated petitions against allowing Russell to purchase a home there.
During his years with the Celtics, Russell became known as someone who was outspoken, opinionated and uncompromising when it came to issues of race, equality and freedom.
Early in his NBA years, Russell spoke out against what he saw as the NBA imposing limits on the number of black players allowed to play in the league. There were only 15 black players in the league when Russell went public with his statement(s).
As the 1960’s and the civil rights movement progressed, an ever thoughtful and insightful Russell wrote the following: “It is the first time in four centuries that the american negro can create his own history. To be part of this is one of the most significant things that can happen”.
Other examples of Russell’s work as it relates to civil rights and the quest for freedom include a 1959 visit to Africa. With the decolonization movement spreading across the continent Russell spent time in Libya, Ethiopia and Liberia to show his support for the freedom movement.
Yet another example of Russell’s fight against discrimination and for civil rights is documented within an event which occurred in 1961. The Celtics were scheduled to play an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky. When a restaurant in Lexington refused to serve Russell and his black teammates, Russell led a movement which resulted in the boycotting of the game, This during a time when it was expected of black athletes to “look the other way” at acts of discrimination. Not Russell.
Russell was also not shy about his viewpoint that Boston was a racially bigoted city. The result of his outspoken position was that someone broke into his house, wrote racist graffiti on the walls of his house and defecated on his bed.
By the late 1960’s, having witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the political struggles of Muhammad Ali, Russell had this to say: “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”.
The greatness of Bill Russell should not and cannot be measured by his basketball accomplishments alone. His courage and actions to impact and create a better and more equitable society are monumental. Perhaps the following quotes sum it up best;
Said Basketball Hall-of-Famer Bob Lanier about Russell: “Bill Russell is a difference maker. He, Jim Brown and Arthur Ashe were the guys during that era who were celebrities and used their celebrity to the greatest good to try to define equality among mankind”.
And this from Jim Brown himself: “Bill has always had the consciousness and intellect to understand what freedom and equality and justice meant for all people. He always represented all people, not by color or race or gender or anything but the rights of people. In his sports career he represented it and outside of that, he did everything he could do as an individual, utilizing his status, his intelligence, his energy and time to affect the lives of others”.
William Felton Russell, aka Bill Russell; A great basketball player, an even greater human being.