Bill Russell's Legacy Reaches Far Beyond NBA GOAT Debates

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor ISeptember 10, 2021

Bill Russell presents the 2013 W.E.B. Du Bois Medal to then-NBA Commissioner David Stern.
Bill Russell presents the 2013 W.E.B. Du Bois Medal to then-NBA Commissioner David Stern.Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Bill Russell, 87, is still racking up assists in the NBA

They now come in the form of the coaches, Black coaches specifically, whose opportunities for success have been aided in large part by Russell's trail-blazing coaching career. 

Russell, inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1975, is back again as a coach as part of the 2021 Hall of Fame class. 

While he spent eight years coaching in the NBA, it was his first three with the Celtics—he won titles in the last two of them—that truly set himself apart and paved the way for dozens of Black coaches to have a shot at leading a team in a league that for so many years had denied them that opportunity.

There's no better example of Russell's impact on Black coaches than the 2021 playoffs. 

In the Eastern Conference Finals, you had the Atlanta Hawks coached by Nate McMillan, whose 688 career coaching wins rank No. 20 on the league's all-time list.

And in the Western Conference Finals, you had the Los Angeles Clippers' Tyronn Lue, who had already won a championship as a head coach in leading Cleveland to its only title in 2016, facing the Phoenix Suns' Monty Williams, whose 17-win improvement from the previous season was among the biggest turnarounds in the NBA last season.  

Three of the last four teams standing were led by Black men, something that had never happened in NBA history. 

"That says a lot about how we can coach," Lue told The Undefeated. "Hopefully, we can stop getting looked down upon so we can build a way for all the young Black head coaches." 

And it is that latter point by Lue that speaks to the initial hurdle Russell faced when coaching, a hurdle that those Black coaches who have come after him have had to fight in some way, shape, or form. 

Beyond being the first Black coach in the NBA in a city Russell referred to as a "flea market of racism," Russell was also criticized for his unorthodox practice regimen.

The latter criticism about his coaching style, Russell acknowledged had some truth to it.

"I didn't like certain kinds of details," he says. "I'd have a practice planned in my head but I wouldn't write it down, so I didn't have a program that anyone else could sit down and read because I was doing practically all the coaching myself."

Celtics general manager Red Auerbach, left, and player-coach Bill Russell are pictured together on Sep. 14, 1967.
Celtics general manager Red Auerbach, left, and player-coach Bill Russell are pictured together on Sep. 14, 1967.Photo by Joe Dennehy/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Several years passed by with little to no progress made when it comes to Black coaches having a significant presence in the NBA, despite those early years when those that were afforded opportunities were for the most part successful. 

After Russell became the league's first Black head coach in 1966, the two Black coaches hired by other teams after him—Al Attles with the San Francisco Warriors and Lenny Wilkens with the Seattle SuperSonics, both former players themselves—also won titles in 1975 and 1979, respectively. 

Following Wilkens' title run in 1979, he and Attles remained the lone Black head coaches the following year. 

Earl Lloyd was the first full-time head coach when the Detroit Pistons hired him in 1971. He struggled to win and was soon replaced by another Black coach, Ray Scott, who in 1974 was named the NBA's Coach of the Year—the first time the award had been given to a Black coach. 

That's three of the first five Black head coaches in the NBA winning titles with a fourth being named Coach of the Year. 

Despite their early success, it didn't necessarily lead to a cascade of Black coaches afterward. 

The peak of Black head coaches in the NBA came during the 2012-2013 season when there were 14.

Within the past year or so, there has been an increased level of attention and energy directed toward diversity in this country. 

A major catalyst for this increase often comes back to the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

Since then, there has been a racial reckoning in this country that has led to several significant changes.

We have seen in some instances an unprecedented political shift, such as Rev. Raphael Warnock becoming the first Black senator to represent Georgia when he defeated Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler (a former WNBA owner whose players supported Warnock and helped catapult the Democrat to victory) in a hotly contested runoff election in January.  

In the NBA, there were eight head coaching openings going into the 2021-2022 season with seven Black head coach hires. That brings the total number of Black head coaches to 13. 

Carmelo Anthony, the first recipient of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion Award, has been pleased with the progress of late made on the coaching front for Blacks.

"I can't believe it," Anthony told Ebony.com. "It's shocking to me, but it's exciting, too, to see where we're at and where we are going."

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 30: Head Coach Tyronn Lue of the Los Angeles Clippers and Head Coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns talk after the game during Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals of the 2021 NBA Playoffs on June 30, 2021 at STAPLES Center i
Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

While those Black coaches who have been hired recently are certainly talented, events of the day also played a role.

"The timing of everything," Anthony said, "of what's happened and what's happening, allowed Black coaches to come in and take advantage of being in the seat, of being at the helm and have their own team...to show what they can do."

Being a pace-setter when it comes to diversity was not exactly at the forefront of the late Red Auerbach's thinking when he made the decision in 1966 to pass the coaching baton in Boston to Russell.

But like many game-changing moments in history, Auerbach's motive had more to do with winning games than winning a culture war.

When asked by a reporter if he had any advice for the Celtics' new head coach (Russell), Auerbach's one-word response said it all. "Win!" 

And when you look back at the last four coaches standing in the playoffs last season, that is exactly what they each represent. 

McMillan was a midseason replacement for Lloyd Pierce (who is also Black) in Atlanta and immediately sparked the Hawks. At the time of Pierce's firing, the Hawks were 14-20 and in 11th place in the East. Under McMillan, they would finish the season with a 41-31 record and tied for fourth in the conference with New York. 

Like McMillan, Lue also replaced a Black head coach in Doc Rivers, who was fired at the end of the 2019-2020 season. Despite what was an injury-riddled season, the Clippers still finished with a respectable 47-25 record before knocking off the Dallas Mavericks and top-seeded Utah Jazz in the playoffs. 

And then there was Monty Williams in Phoenix, whose Suns team went a perfect 8-0 in the NBA's Orlando, Florida, bubble during the conclusion of the 2019-2020 season. That experience coupled with the addition of Chris Paul helped propel the Suns from a non-playoff team to coming two wins away from winning the franchise's first NBA title. 

While each man's arrival to the head coaching position was unique, it ultimately came down to them getting an opportunity that few Black people had received in past years. 

But as mentioned earlier, a large influx of Black head coaches were hired during the offseason. And there's another wave of top-shelf assistants led by Darvin Ham and Charles Lee of the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks; David Vanterpool in Brooklyn; and Sam Cassell in Philadelphia.

And as those current Black head coaches and those on the horizon continue to elevate with increased opportunities, each will have their own distinct tale for how they got the job. 

But it all comes back to Russell, whose success as a coach paved the way for others to follow.

Philadelphia head coach Doc Rivers, who won a title in 2008 in Boston, is among those who long ago embraced the importance of what Russell did as a coach.

Rivers has 992 career coaching wins and ranks 10th on the NBA's all-time list. Lenny Wilkens (1,332) is the only Black coach with more career victories than Rivers.

Several factors have contributed to Rivers' coaching success, with the coaching contributions of Russell near the top of that list. 

"Bill Russell allowed the rest of the world to know that if you're qualified, anyone can coach," Rivers said during a 2017 NBA Black History Month video. "Without Bill Russell, I'm not coaching."