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Bill Russell's Biggest Wins Were Against the NBA

A Sherrod BlakelyContributor IAugust 1, 2022

Legendary Celtics head coach Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics speaks with Bill Russell before an NBA game circa 1970 at the Boston Garden. (Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images)

To understand the context in which Bill Russell lived, refer to his daughter Karen's recollection of returning from a three-day weekend only to find the family's home had been robbed.

"Our house was in a shambles, and 'NIGGA' was spray-painted on the walls," she wrote in a 1987 New York Times Magazine article. "The burglars had poured beer on the pool table and ripped up the felt. ... The police came, and after a while, they left. It was then that my parents pulled back their bedcovers to discover that the burglars had defecated in their bed."

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What was Bill Russell's life like while he was racking up 11 rings? His daughter writes: <a href="https://t.co/ETKKvEbDfX">pic.twitter.com/ETKKvEbDfX</a>

As a star center for the Boston Celtics, Russell felt betrayed by his own city and even the fans who came to watch him play. In his 1979 memoir, Second Wind, Russell referred to Boston as "a flea market of racism."

"He had animosities toward Boston, as most people know," said Tom Heinsohn, Russell's former teammate. "And they were well-founded animosities, I might add."

Generations later, NBA athletes still deal with the same brand of racism Russell experienced. LeBron James can vouch. The list of ex-Celtics players with misgivings about Boston is seemingly neverending. Some things you can't change.

But Russell's legacy is proof there are some things you can change.

On Sunday, at the news of his death at 88 years old, Russell was rightfully celebrated as a social justice champion and civil rights provocateur in the larger cultural landscape.

And no story about Russell would be complete without acknowledging some of the basketball success he enjoyed. He was the driving force behind 11 NBA titles and a two-time Hall of Famer, first as a player (1975) and later as a coach (2021).

He wasn't just along for the ride, either. Russell was a 12-time All-Star and five-time league MVP.

Basketball icon Michael Jordan was among the many luminaries to weigh in on Russell's death. Like most who knew Russell, Jordan was quick to point out the impact Russell made on his life and so many other Black men who have played in the NBA.

"Bill Russell was a pioneer—as a player, as a champion, as the NBA's first Black head coach and as an activist," Jordan said. "He paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him, including me."

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, in a statement, alluded to Russell's civil rights legacy and relevance in the culture writ large: "The countless accolades that he earned for his storied career with the Boston Celtics … only begin to tell the story of Bill's immense impact on our league and broader society."

But it's also worth focusing on the power dynamics he leveraged inside the NBA at a time when labor rights for Black players were hardly a given. In a league where more than 70 percent of its players are Black, Russell's push for change often meant confronting the league's uncomfortable truths regarding race and labor rights.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

On an Island

The optics at the time were too much for Bill Russell to ignore or stay quiet. When he joined the Boston Celtics in 1956, he was the only Black man on the team. A few years later, Russell noticed the number of Black players on the Celtics roster had improved, but the league as a whole showed minimal growth.

This did not sit well with Russell, who began to complain about the league's cap on the number of Black players allowed to play in the NBA.

"That complaint led to change," Russell wrote in a first-person account that appeared in Slam Magazine.

In 1964 at the All-Star Game in Boston, he and his fellow All-Stars won players a pension plan, something the NBA had balked at previously.

This particular All-Star Game was more star-studded than most with 17 future Hall of Famers and the first time the game would be on live television.

Russell knew this group had leverage and remained steadfast in his willingness to boycott the game altogether. The vote was 11-9 in favor of the boycott, and then-NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy agreed to their demands just minutes before tipoff.


Agent of Change

While most of Russell's activism involved bettering life for himself and other NBA players, he also gave his support to other Black athletes during the 1960s.

In 1967, Russell joined several prominent athletes—including Lew Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Jim Brown—in Cleveland to support Muhammad Ali, who announced he would not serve in the Vietnam War.

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<a href="https://t.co/tlKQeFJP4f">pic.twitter.com/tlKQeFJP4f</a>

Ali's opposition to the war put him at odds with a large swath of society. By supporting Ali, Russell was well aware of the potential backlash he might receive.

Fast-forward to this generation of athletes who, in recent years, have shown an elevated level of activism. The Celtics' Marcus Smart marched with fellow Boston residents to raise awareness about social injustice. Others like the WNBA's Renee Montgomery opted not to play and instead focused on social justice initiatives.

But the positions they take, by and large, are either widely accepted or fall under the guise of societal norms of the times.

That wasn't the case with Russell, who had everything to lose but found a way to win real change.

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