Bill Russell, Civil Rights Hero and Inventor of Airborne Basketball

Doug Merlino@dougmerlinoGuest ColumnistApril 29, 2011

Bill Russell guards Wilt Chamberlain in the 1960s.
Bill Russell guards Wilt Chamberlain in the 1960s.

The following is an excerpt from the e-book The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James.

Every year, the NBA playoffs remind us of the value and scarcity of swift, mobile big men such as Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard who can anchor defenses, own the boards and intimidate opposing shooters.

It’s almost impossible now to imagine that in its early days, basketball was considered to be a game for the relatively short and quick—tall players were seen as too sluggish to keep up.

For example, Joe Lapchick, the star center for the Original Celtics in the 1920s and 1930s, was only 6'5". In the late 1940s and early '50s, the 6'10" George Mikan came to dominate the game, but he was mechanical and lumbering.

Basketball was still, for the most part, a half-court grind. It was also, at both the professional and major college levels, exceedingly white.

Given that, few players have had an impact on the game like Bill Russell, from his first NCAA championship at the University of San Francisco in 1955 to his final ring with the Boston Celtics in 1969.

He not only redefined basketball, but, as the civil rights movement gained momentum in tandem with his career, the role of the black athlete.

Born in West Monroe, La., in 1934, Russell’s early life experiences paralleled those of tens of thousands of other African-Americans. Russell’s father worked in a paper mill and had little hope for advancement. The South was segregated and lynching was still common in Louisiana.

Getting the Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2010.
Getting the Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2010.

After World War II began and word got out that there were jobs available in the shipyards of Oakland, Calif., the Russell family packed up and headed west in 1943.

Oakland was far different than the South, but hardly paradise. As black migrants like the Russells moved into west Oakland, adjacent to the shipyards, whites moved out, creating newly segregated neighborhoods.

Russell’s father got a job on the docks, but lost it in 1945 when the war ended. The family fell into poverty. Over the next few years unemployment rose, ushering in economic stagnation and racial tension.

In 1946, Russell’s mother died after a brief illness. Russell and his mother had been very close and her death changed him. He lost his confidence, became shy and withdrawn, and spent hours reading in the Oakland Public Library.

When he entered west Oakland’s McClymonds High School, Russell was only 5'10". He showed promise in track but didn’t have many basketball skills. By senior year, he’d grown to 6'5" but was still awkward on the court.

University of San Francisco

But even as his body was still growing, Russell had already started to use his greatest weapon—his mind—to re-imagine the game. Until the 1950s, the thinking about basketball defense had been that a defender should stay flat-footed. If he left his feet, an offensive player could drive by him and draw a foul.

Blocking a shot at Boston Garden.
Blocking a shot at Boston Garden.

Russell began to experiment by jumping to block shots. Even though his coaches tried to stop him at first, he kept at it and started to see that this new, airborne style could completely disrupt an opposing team’s offense and psyche.

During Russell’s senior year, a scout from the University of San Francisco came to one of his games to check out another player. He watched as Russell, who was just beginning to bring it all together on the court, played smothering defense and hit his high school scoring high, 14 points.

It was enough to yield a scholarship offer to USF, the only one he received. “A small school no one could find. A tall guy no one else wanted,” Russell later wrote. “To me, it was a thing of rare beauty…It was college.”

That meant, for Russell, a chance to escape from the racism and poverty he’d grown up with. He enrolled in 1952 as a freshman and, over the next decade, spearheaded what can be considered the invention of modern basketball.

In the 1950, Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first black players in the NBA. But integration at the pro and major college levels proceeded at a crawl.

At USF, Russell’s talents exploded. He grew to nearly 6'10" and refined his style of aggressive defense, swatting away shots, challenging shooters, pulling down rebounds, tossing outlet passes and essentially owning the key.

In 1954, head coach Phil Woolpert started Russell along with African-American teammates K.C. Jones and Hal Perry. It was, amazingly, the first time a major college basketball team put three black starters on the court.

With Kobe Bryant on All-Star weekend, 2007.
With Kobe Bryant on All-Star weekend, 2007.

The team, based around Russell’s whirling-dervish defense, took the 1955 and '56 NCAA titles. For his college career, Russell average over 20 points and 20 rebounds a game. We can only guess how many shots he blocked, as the stat was not yet officially tracked.

Race was inseparable from the team’s achievements on the court. When USF traveled to Oklahoma City for a Christmas tournament in 1954, none of the city’s downtown hotels would put up the black players. In solidarity, the whole team decided to stay together in an empty dormitory.

Then, when the team took the court before a game at the tournament, fans taunted the players by chanting “Globetrotters!” and throwing coins at them. Russell, trying to defuse the situation with humor, picked up the money and asked Woolpert: “Coach, can you hold these for me?”

In 1955, when USF won its first national championship, Russell was first team All-American and MVP of the Final Four. Still, another player was chosen as Northern California Player of the Year.

Boston: 11 championships in 13 years

Russell said he learned that black players could be cheated out of individual laurels, so he decided to focus on what was in his control—making his teams win.

He did that in a way that has never been matched in pro sports. After Red Auerbach finagled the rights to draft Russell in the 1956 draft, the center led the Celtics to 11 championships in his 13 years in the league.

These included fierce match-ups with his bigger, stronger rival—and close friend—Wilt Chamberlain. The two pushed each other to extremes, but Russell, in large part through sheer will to win, usually prevailed.

“He thought that any team he plays on should win every single game. So that kind of permeated the whole team,” said Russell's Celtics teammate Tom “Satch” Sanders. “That was Russell’s gift.”

Russell—as well as other black NBA stars such as Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor—was also remaking the league and the game just as the United States was entering the Civil Rights era.

“It is the first time in four centuries that the American Negro can create his own history,” Russell wrote in the 1960s. “To be part of this is one of the most significant things that can happen.”

The surge of the movement placed black athletes—some of the most visible African-Americans in the country—into the political spotlight.

Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing for three-and-a-half years after he refused to enter the army when he was drafted. On the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos held their gloved fists above their heads in Black Power salutes.

Russell, in the meantime, forged his own way, outspoken, opinionated, uncompromising and thoughtful.

When he joined the NBA, Russell decried what he saw as de facto quotas that capped the number of black players in the league. There were only 15 at the time.

In 1959, as the decolonization movement was spreading across Africa, Russell traveled to the continent, stopping in Libya, Ethiopia—where he chatted in the back of a car with Emperor Haile Selassie—and Liberia.

In a classroom in Liberia, a student asked Russell why he was there. “I came here because I believe that somewhere in Africa is my ancestral home,” Russell said. “I came here because I am drawn here, like any man, drawn to seek the land of my ancestors.”

The students stood and cheered, and Russell broke down in tears.

Through basketball stardom, Russell had achieved the fame and the financial means to be able to travel back to Africa to look for his roots. In a sense, he was making a symbolic journey for many other African-Americans who couldn’t afford such a trip. He was so taken with Liberia that he bought a small rubber plantation there.

In 1961, a Lexington, Ky., restaurant wouldn’t seat Russell and his black Celtics teammates before an exhibition game. They boycotted the game, a ground-breaking statement at a time when black athletes had been expected to look the other way at such discrimination.

After the 1963 assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., Russell flew down to lead the city’s first integrated basketball camps.

"We foolishly lionize athletes"

But Russell, unlike the gregarious Chamberlain, was a prickly and mercurial personality. He often said that he owed the fans exactly what they owed him—“Nothing”—and he steadfastly refused to sign autographs.

He also didn’t hide is opinion that Boston was rife with bigotry. As if to prove his point, someone broke into his house, left racist graffiti on the walls and defecated on the bed.

On the court, Russell just kept winning. In 1966, Auerbach made him player-coach of the Celtics, the first African-American head coach of an NBA team.

Over the next few years, as Russell’s body aged, the tumult of the late 1960s—race riots in American cities, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.—made him question whether playing basketball was really that important.

“We foolishly lionize athletes and make them heroes because they can hit a ball or catch one,” Russell said. “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.”

In 1969, Russell led a Celtics team that included Sam Jones and John Havlicek to one last title, a seven-game battle against a Los Angeles Lakers team that featured Chamberlain, Baylor and Jerry West. After the final game, Russell walked away, breaking ties with Boston for decades.

By that time, professional basketball had been transformed from a ground-based game to one played in the air and above the rim. The NBA had gone from a league with 15 African-American players to one that was majority-black.

Russell, over the years, transformed as well. From a childhood of rural poverty in Louisiana, he’d pushed himself to become an unprecedented champion, the holder of two NCAA rings and 11 NBA championships, an international superstar.

When Russell had started playing basketball, both black players and black Americans were expected to stand in the shadows. By the time he was done, they had emerged.

To learn about Doug Merlino's e-book, The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James, click here.

Further reading:

Russell’s three memoirs, all very readable and informative, are a great place to start:

Go Up for Glory, written with William McSweeney, was published in 1966.

Second Wind: Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, with Taylor Branch, in 1980.

Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend, with Alan Steinberg, in 2009.

Aram Goudsouzian’s King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution is a comprehensive biography with a focus on placing Russell within the context of his times.

The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball by John Taylor provides an in-depth look at the two men and their times.

Doug Merlino is the author of The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White. Visit his blog. Follow him on Twitter. This is the fifth of eight parts, with new installments every Friday. Read Part 1,  Part 2 and Part 3Part 4, and Merlino’s interview with Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first black player. 


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