Bill Russell and Red Auerbach came to an agreement.
Aurbach, a longtime Boston Celtics coach, told Russell that he planned to retire from coaching. Russell and Auerbach had created a dynasty together, with Russell dominating the center and Auerbach consolidating his championship win with celebratory cigar smoke.
They will each write down their top five favorite coaches to succeed Auerbach and consider any names that appear on both lists.
They didn’t find any matches. Auerbach had already approached Russell about taking the job and continuing as a player, but Russell, who had seen coaching toll at Auerbach, immediately rebuked him.
Now, after the list of candidates swelled, Russell reconsidered his position and found that none other than Auerbach could coach Bill Russell like Bill Russell.
“When Red and I started discussing how to be our coach, there were a few things we didn’t have to say,” Russell wrote of his friendship with Auerbach in his book, Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend,” in 2009. “For example, when I was finally named publicly, I didn’t know I’d become the first African American coach in the history of major league sports.”
It was 1966, and the distinction didn’t even cross his mind until members of the Boston news media informed him. “When I took the job, a reporter wrote seven articles focusing on why I shouldn’t be coaching the Celtics,” Russell wrote.
Russell, who died at the age of 88 on Sunday, won two championships as head coach of the Celtics, his 10th and 11th championship ring. He will also coach the Seattle SuperSonics and the Sacramento Kings and inspire a generation of black players to try their hand at coaching as well. The skepticism that arose with his hiring in Boston is perhaps less of an issue now, but is nonetheless a factor in whether black people are hired to coach in the NBA today.
Bernie Bickerstaff, who is Black, saw Russell as the head coach of the Celtics, just as he was about to enter a life of coaching. He started out as an assistant at the University of San Diego under Phil Woolpert, who coached Russell at the University of San Francisco.
“At the time, you didn’t think of anything like that,” said Bickerstaff, who coached the SuperSonics in 1985. “Actually, if you sit back and you’re a young black at the time, it seemed far-fetched.”
Coach Russell imitated player Russell. He was a longtime civil rights activist who trained the Celtics during the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. “It rubbed a lot of Bostonians the wrong way,” wrote Russell in his 2009 book. “At the time, Boston was a completely different city — and I strongly opposed segregation.”
He demanded respect and competed fiercely in an era when he had no assistant coach. He played and coached the Celtics for three seasons before calling off the NBA’s most successful and longest-lasting championship reign.
Jim Clemons, who is Black and coached the Dallas Mavericks in 1996, said, “If you understand the culture of this country, it speaks for itself as a person and a humanitarian, if you understand the culture of this country.” understand the culture.”
Al Atles and Lenny Wilkens followed Russell as the next Black NBA head coach. He, like Russell, led teams to championships. It took a while for the rest of the professional sports world to catch on. Frank Robinson, Russell’s former high school basketball teammate, became Major League Baseball’s first black manager in Cleveland in 1975. Art Schell became the NFL’s first black head coach in the modern era for the Oakland Raiders in 1989.
“Bill Russell was an inspiration with coaching, period,” Bickerstaff said. “But as a human being, at a time when someone of our color was not popular, he stood up and represented. He had no fear. He was genuine. He was a success. He was on the court and on There was a leader outside.”
Russell became the fifth person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and a coach when he earned a reputation as a coach last year.
Until then, when Bickerstaff entered coaching seemed a bit far-fetched. Half of the NBA’s 30 coaches will be black heading into the 2022–23 season, including JB Bickerstaff, Bernie’s son and coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But as recently as 2020, only four Black coaches roamed the sidelines of the NBA. “There’s a certain natural ups and downs to recruiting and firing coaches, but that number is just too small,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said ahead of the 2020 finals.
Other sports leagues lagged behind. Nearly two decades after Russell won his first championship as coach, Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis expressed doubts about black people’s ability to hold managerial-level positions.
In a 1987 interview on ABC’s “Nightline,” Campanis said, “I don’t believe it’s prejudice.” manager.”
MLB recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, yet only two of its current managers — Houston’s Dusty Baker and Dodgers Dave Roberts — are Black.
In the NFL, former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores recently sued the league over discriminatory hiring practices. Flores is the son of Honduran immigrants. The NFL created a diversity advisory committee and mandated that each team hire minority offensive coaches, following Flores’s suit.
Russell did not talk often about being the first Black coach in a major sports league. But after his hiring, he felt the tension that awaited him as “the first Negro coach,” as he wrote in his book.
The hope of his relationship with Aurbach developing from a superficial coach-player bond into a deep friendship brought him comfort.
“So I started waiting for him,” he wrote.
Russell left the Celtics in 1969 but took over the SuperSonics from 1973 to 1977. He guided Seattle to the franchise’s first playoff, but did not get the success he had in Boston.
Russell coached one final season with the Sacramento Kings in 1987–88, before he was fired and moved to the front office after a 17–41 start.
“As with so many great players, it was hard for them to understand why regular players didn’t have the same drive, focus and commitment to winning,” said Russell on Kings assistant Jerry Reynolds. Interview Sunday. “There aren’t a lot of guys out there who are wired like that. That’s why they’re great. In some ways, it was hard for him to understand. Most of the guys, they wanted to win. They needed to win every match like him. Wasn’t.”
Also, Russell remained true to who he was during the coaching.
Bickerstaff recalled that instead of signing an autograph, Russell had given a set of golf clubs to one of Woolpert’s sons—an act that Russell was known to vehemently refuse throughout his career.
Clemons said a booster introduced his high school team to Russell after he won the Ohio State championship. Russell barely looked up from his soup. He hated being interrupted by food.
Clemons understood the state of mind after reading Russell’s autobiography.
Before thinking of him as a basketball player, before being seen as a coach, Russell wanted to be seen as a human being.
“He was a bit like Muhammad Ali,” Reynolds said. “He was always who he was. Society and people changed. Things changed to fit in more like it was all meant to be together.”