Among Pro Athletes, Bill Russell Was a Leading Activist

It’s easy to remember shots that Bill Russell blocked or won the NBA Championship. After all, there were so many of them in each that he is considered one of the greatest basketball players in history, and in some corners, the greatest, of the period.

But after nearly nine decades of his life, his most consequential legacy has less to do with the game he dominated than his work off the court. From the time of his death on Sunday at the age of 88, Russell was a civil rights activist who relentlessly used his platform as a celebrity athlete to confront racism, whether he was alienated from someone or what he did. What did it do for public popularity? And he was one of the first to do so.

Now, it is common for athletes in many sports to be vocal, undoubtedly inspired by Russell. The NBA Players Association encourages its members to be passionate about their politics, especially about social justice. Without Russell risking his livelihood and enduring the brutalities he faced as a black athlete in the isolated Boston of the 1950s and 1960s, athlete activism would look very different today, if it existed at all.

“The blueprint was written by Russell,” Rev. Al Sharpton said in an interview on Sunday. He continued: “It is trending to take a stand on social media now. They did it when it wasn’t trendy. He set the trend.”

“We’re losing so great my head is spinning,” director and longtime NBA fan Spike Lee said in a text message.

Lee said that Russell “is right up there with Jackie Robinson in the United States as changing the game in sports and activism, and we are better because of these champions.”

A West Monroe, LA native, Russell was a trailblazer from the time he set foot on the NBA court.

“In my rookie year, the championship series, I was the only black player for both teams,” Russell once quipped to the audience while accepting an award in Boston. “And see what we did, we showed them the works of diversity.”

Russell, at the prime of his playing career in 1963, joined the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the March in Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (He played for the Celtics from 1956 to 1969He was invited to sit on the stage behind the king, but he declined. In the same year, Russell offered his public support for the demonstrations against Segregation in Boston Public Schoolsand addressed the black students who took part in the picket.

When civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated, also in 1963, Russell approached Evers’ older brother, Charles, in Jackson, Miss., and offered his assistance. Elder Evers suggested that Russell run an integrated basketball camp in the Deep South, something that would have been a significant security risk for Russell. He said yes, and despite the death threats, Went through the camp.

Four years later, when boxer Muhammad Ali was criticized for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, Russell, NFL star Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor and still playing at UCLA). had to face. gathered in cleveland And decided to support Ali. It wasn’t a popular stance that Russell cared about.

Soon after, Russell wrote that He was jealous of Alik,

Russell wrote for Sports Illustrated, “he has complete and sincere confidence.” “I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. He’s better equipped than anyone I know to face the trials that lie ahead for him. What I worry about is the rest of us.”

Russell’s activism impacted generations of athletes. This included Spencer Heywood, who played for Russell as a member of the Seattle SuperSonics, who was coached by Russell. for four seasons. (In 1966, Russell became the first black coach in the NBA)

Heywood said in an interview on Sunday that she and Russell often dine at a Seattle restaurant called 13 Coins after the road trip, and Russell would tell them stories about the civil rights movement. During these dinners, Russell applauded the young player’s desire to sue the NBA in 1971 for not allowing players to enter the league until four years after their high school graduation – a case that the US Went to the Supreme Court and ultimately decided in Heywood’s favor.

Heywood said, “He was teaching me because he knew I stood by my Supreme Court decision.” “And he admired it in me. And I was so overwhelmed to know him.”

Heywood said that his teammates jokingly referred to Russell as Heywood’s “daddy” because of how close they were. At times, Heywood’s late-night conversations with Russell brought surprising advice about activism.

“He would always tell me about being too seduced since we were in the ’70s,” Heywood recalled. “He was guiding me, saying: ‘Don’t go too far right now because you’re a player and you need to play the game. But you’ve made a stand and you’ve done very well in that, but don’t go too far. .’ He was, like, railing at me.”

Russell himself was never afraid to go too far as a sportsperson. he was not hurt by casteist taunt When he became absorbed in sports after moving his family to Reading, Mass., or when his house was ransacked, leaving spray-painted epithets on the wall and feces on the bed. When she tried to move her family to a different house nearby, some mostly white neighborhood residents started a petition to keep her out.

“I said then that I am not afraid of the kind of men who come in the dark of night,” wrote Russell for slam magazine in 2020, “The fact is, I’ve never found fear to be useful.”

He did not always get the support of his peers. In 1961, for example, the Celtics traveled to Lexington, Ky. for an exhibition game against the St. Louis Hawks. When the hotel restaurant won’t serve the team’s black players, Russell took the lead game strike. His white teammates played the game. One of Russell’s white peers, Bob Cousy, told author Gary M. Pomerantz for his 2018 book “The Last Pass: Cousy, the Celtics and What Matters in the End” decades later that he was “ashamed” of participating in it. Were. Play. President Barack Obama cited the 1961 story in awarding Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

“For decades, Bill tolerated humiliation and vandalism, but that never stopped him from speaking up for what’s right,” Obama said in a statement on Sunday. I learned a lot from the way he played, the way he coached and the way he lived his life.

The activism didn’t stop as Russell grew up. In recent years, Russell has been a public supporter of Black Lives Matter Movement And Colin KaepernickThe former NFL quarterback who took a knee during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality.

“Bill Russell was a pioneer,” Eton Thomas, a former NBA player and political activist, said in a text message on Sunday. Thomas said Russell was “an athlete who used his position and platform to stand up for a great cause.” He said that “he was the type of athlete I wanted to be when I grew up.”

Russell’s influence in leading the 1961 strike can be felt in 2020, when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play a playoff game in protest of police brutality. on twitter, russell it is written that He was inspired by “all NBA players to stand up for what is right.” In an excerpt for The Players Tribune weeks later, Russell wrote“There are black and brown people Even then fighting for justice, racist Even then Hold the highest office in the country.”

Sharpton pointed to those works as Russell’s legacy.

“He did it before some of these people were born,” Sharpton said. “And I think they need to understand that every time a basketball player or athlete says something about Trayvon or ‘I’m Trayvon’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’ or whatever they want to do, t- shirt put on – ‘Get your knee off my neck!’ – They may not know it, but they are doing Bill Russell.”

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