The center was drafted second overall in the 1956 NBA draft by the St. Louis Hawks and traded to the Boston Celtics. The future Hall of Famer would not join the team until December because of the Olympics. Once he did join the club, Russell would lead them to 1957 NBA crown. This was the Celtics’ first title and Russell’s first year in the league.
He continued his pattern of greatness in championship games by grabbing 32 rebounds and having the biggest play of the game. The Hawks were up 103-101 and Russell tied the game with 20 seconds remaining. With the score tied, Hawks forward/center Jack Coleman somehow got behind the Celtics defense and appeared to be racing toward an easy layup.
At the last moment Russell, who had sprinted the length of the floor, blocked the Coleman layup and sent the game into overtime where Boston would secure the win.
Such a tremendous conquest in the infancy stages of one’s career is worthy of spectacular accolades unless that person is Bill Russell. He had experienced racism in college from the fans in opposing arenas and had been denied access to hotels, instead being forced to sleep in “Negro accommodating” locations.
He persevered nonetheless, despite the fact that fellow Celtics rookie Tommy Heinsohn won the Rookie of the Year award. Bob Cousy won the regular season MVP award and Russell was not voted onto either of the All-NBA teams, which pained Russell deeply. The media voted for these awards and they deemed the center not deserving despite his play. Sadly, there was no NBA Finals MVP for Russell to take home either because the award did not exist at that time.
This was not the first time the media ignored Russell’s on-court endeavors. His junior year at the University of San Francisco, he led the Dons to a 28-1 season and the national championship. Arrogance had set in and the all-world center was certain he would win Player of the Year in his conference, especially since he had won the Final Four MVP. Yet, Russell was passed over for Ken Sears, a Caucasian center from the University of Santa Clara. Sears had averaged 22 points, but the Broncos had gone a pedestrian 13-11.
On the court the Celtics worked in unison, however off of it Russell was alone. As the Celtics' only black player in 1957, Russell was called every racial epithet you could imagine. His trip to St. Louis, which was a known hotbed for racism, for the championship series was filled by calls of “baboon,” “coon,” and “black nigger.” The Hawks, who originally drafted Russell, still had an all-white team and the Celtics only had one black player, Russell. So not only was Russell the only black player in the series, he was the only black person in the building.
Things grew so hotly contested Celtics that coach Red Auerbach punched Hawks owner Ben Kerner in the mouth just for living.
Russell’s performance in that series was not only groundbreaking, it was infuriating to a league that was not ready for such a skilled player, who was willing and able to speak his mind. Russell’s first year in the NBA he felt hate that his teammates could never understand.
The next season, in 1958, racial tension was still extremely high as this was just four years after the earth-shattering Brown vs. Board of Education and a few months after Congress had just passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Needless to say these were not happy times for African Americans, especially for one as unwaveringly strong as Russell. Bill, after being forced to sleep in a “colored hotel” separate from his teammates in North Carolina, called the city of Charlotte crummy to local reporters and vowed to never play there again.
In fact, his entire career was marred by racism. He was refused service at All-Star games, refused housing on road trips and denied awards because of his refusal to accept the injustices of America. He boycotted games and cities to show solidarity with follow Negros who were not athletes, in an effort to end racial segregation.
There were times when he was not directly involved but still led the charge. In 1961 in Lexington, Kentucky, the Celtics were scheduled for an exhibition game against the St. Louis Hawks. Earlier that day four black players were refused service at a coffee shop. When Russell heard the news, he and the other black players on the team boycotted the game.
Three of those players were on the Hawks roster, and such actions were not tolerated in St. Louis. As a result of the boycott, Woody Sauldsberry and Si Green were traded shortly after, thus leaving St. Louis with one African American in Cleo Hill. Hill would later that season be frozen out of the Hawks offense and Hawks players would refuse to rebound his missed shots.
Hall of Fame forward Bob Pettit would deny this in his autobiography, saying, "This hurt because I have never had anything but good relations with boys I played with or against." This, ladies and gentlemen, was the world Bill Russell flourished in.