The Hawks drafted Russell second overall in the 1956 draft and traded him to the Celtics for Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley, who were both Caucasian. Bill Russell was a force in college and at one point won 28 of 29 games, yet St. Louis did not want him. So how did the Celtics know this and how did they grab the icon.
We can thank Red Auerbach for this move. Auerbach wanted Russell and knew the Hawks would not keep him. Cash was not an issue for St. Louis whose owner, Ben Kerner, just two years later LOANED the city of St. Louis $30,000 to refurbish the Hawks home arena. The $30,000 amount was $5,000 short of Russell’s reported $25,000 salary request.
Salary aside there has always been a belief in the Black community about why the Hawks did not want Russell. A belief that was substantiated in the John Taylor classic The Rivarly: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball. Taylor recounts how black players were treated when playing against the Hawks. Russell and other African-American players were pelted with eggs and called “Coons”, “Baboon”, and “Black niggers”. The Hawks would continue to have an all-white team the year they passed on Russell.
When the Hawks traded Russell to the Celtics they did not just trade away a player they traded away a pioneer……………….for two basketball players.
What Russell could have done for a franchise and city would have been immeasurable. A city five years later that traded two of its three black players for boycotting an exhibition game in Kentucky because the hotel refused to serve them. A story told so eloquently by Brad Parks in the article “Rebound from Racism”. St. Louis needed Russell more then he needed St. Louis.
This trade affected the Hawks’ on the court production, as Russell was the leader of a Celtic dynasty that won eight straight titles and 11 in his era. Meanwhile the Hawks have not even made an NBA Finals appearance since 1961, where they lost to a Bill Russell led Celtics team. It also affected the St. Louis Hawks off the court who to this day are still synonymous with racism in professional sports albeit fair or unfair.
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