Bill Russell’s Passing: A Basketball and Civil Rights Champion

Born and bred in Boston, I remember William Felton Russell fondly.

Born in February 1934, he predated my birth by six months in the same year.

I never saw him play in Boston. 

After my 1956 college graduation — the same year Russell led the University of San Francisco Dons to their 55th consecutive win — I spent two years of active duty military service when it was mandatory unless classified 4-F.

Russell left the USF in May 1956 to be part of the US basketball team at the Melbourne, Australia Olympics, after which he joined the Boston Celtics — 16 credits shy of the total required to graduate.

In summer 1957, he returned to the USF with plans to complete his degree requirements, in his autobiography saying:

“I planned on waiving the scholarship and paying for the semester as a gesture of good will.”

“The gesture was unnecessary.”

“No one offered me the remainder of my scholarship.”

“Dear old USF charged me full retail for my tuition.”

Justifiably upset about the snub, he left, never completing his degree requirements.

In 1985 — 16 years after retiring as a Celtics player, the only NBA team he played for — USF Chancellor, John LoSchiavo, offered to award Russell a degree if he’d address a few university classes and write about his NBA experiences, an offer Russell declined to accept for good reason.

According to former USF assistant coach, Ross Giudice, the school was the only one to offer Russell a scholarship.

He led the USF Dons to two national championships — with an integrated roster at a time when most college teams were all white.

In Russell’s final year at USF, 5 of the Dons’ top players were African Americans, as well as being advocates for social change.

In the 1957 NBA finals for the league championship between the Celtics and St. Louis Hawks, Russell was the only Black player on either team.

After retiring from the NBA as an active player, he was awarded honorary doctorates from a number of schools of higher education, including Princeton, Georgetown and Harvard.

At the latter’s 2007 commencement, he was awarded a Doctor of Laws.

Along with noting his basketball achievements, Harvard said the following:

“Russell’s playing days ended almost four decades ago, but he has stayed in the winning column as an author (three bestsellers) and as an advocate for civil rights, equality, and diversity.”

“He works on the motivational speechmaking circuit, and is a member of the board of directors for the National Mentoring Partnership.”

When the NBA was established in 1946, it was all white. Today it’s about 80% African American.

In 1950, the Boston Celtics became the first NBA team to draft a Black player, Chuck Cooper.

It got the rights to draft Russell in a trade with the St. Louis Hawks, a giant of the sport in stature, a figure NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, called “basketball’s Babe Ruth,” adding:

“Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever.”

My college friend and graduate school roommate — Marketing Professor Emeritus/former McGill University’s School of Management and Business Administration dean, Stanley Shapiro — and I went to see several Celtics games when they played the Philadelphia Warriors at the city’s Convention Hall.

It was a short walk from the University of Pennsylvania campus at a time we were able to show up on game night, buy tickets for around $3 and watch Russell and Wilt Chamberlin go at each other — a matchup of an unstoppable force against an immovable object.

No one stopped Wilt, the only NBA player ever to score 100 points in a single game.

With his consummate defensive skills, Russell slowed him a bit.

During his 1957-69 NBA career, the Celtics won 11 championships in 13 years when Russell was a 12-time all-star and five-time MVP.

He was the NBA’s first Black coach, the first for a US major league team in any sport — initially with the Celtics, later with the Seattle SuperSonics and Sacramento Kings.

Along with two national championships at the USF, and an Olympics gold medal, Russell transformed the Celtics from an average team to a league champion multiple times over from the late 50s throughout most of the 60s.

Teammate Tommy Heinsohn, a fellow all-star, once said Russell “would do superhuman things when they needed to be done.”

Born in Monroe, LA, his parents, Charlie and Katie, knew area residents who were born slaves.

A defensive innovator, Russell became a consummate rebounder, shot-blocker and what today’s NBA calls a rim-protector, once saying the following:

“I started blocking shots although I had never seen a shot blocked before that.”

He also said that he played for the Celtics, not Boston.

Living in Reading, MA north of the city, his home was once vandalized, racial epithets spray-painted on his walls.

His daughter, Karen, said that whenever the Celtics played road game, “vandals…tip(ped) over our garbage cans,” adding:

“My father went to the police station to complain.”

They “told him that raccoons were responsible, so he asked where he could apply for a gun permit.”

“The raccoons never came back.”

Throughout his life, Russell was a civil rights champion.

Yet once when presented the key to the city in Marion, IN, he was refused service at a local restaurant.

In response, he went straightaway to the mayor’s home and returned the key. 

In 1961, a Lexington, KY restaurant refused to serve Black Celtics players before a scheduled exhibition game.

In response, Russell organized a boycott of the game.

In 1975, he declined to attend his Hall of Fame induction — because other worthy Black players weren’t inducted before him.

In response to his passing on July 31, a statement by the Celtics said the following:

“Bill Russell’s DNA is woven through every element of the Celtics organization, from the relentless pursuit of excellence, to the celebration of team rewards over individual glory, to a commitment to social justice and civil rights off the court.”

“Our thoughts are with his family as we mourn his passing and celebrate his enormous legacy in basketball, Boston, and beyond.”

In 2011, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian award.

In 2017, the NBA honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Russell was in Washington on August 28, 1963 with Martin Luther King when he delivered his memorable “I have a dream” address.

He marched on Washington with MLK for jobs and freedom.

In Boston, he demonstrated for integrated public schools.

When Medgar Evers was murdered by racist Byron De La Beckwith on June 12, 1963 in Jackson, MS, Russell went to the city to open an integrated basketball camp on one of its playgrounds — despite the risk to his safety.

Russell was with famed boxer, Muhammad Ali, when he refused army induction during the Vietnam war, publicly calling himself a conscientious objector, notably saying: 

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” 

At the time, Russell said:

Ali “has absolute and sincere faith.”

He’s “better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him.” 

Long after his playing and coaching days ended, Russell’s activism for equity and justice continued.

He backed former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick — banned from the league for kneeling in 2016 during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

In September 2020, Russell wrote the following:

“Black and Brown people are still fighting for justice.”

“Racists still hold the highest offices in the land.”

Russell reportedly suffered from heart and respiratory issues.

According to his family on Sunday, he died “peacefully” in his sleep — with no further elaboration.

I’m deeply saddened by his passing.

A personal note:

I missed a chance to meet him years earlier in Chicago.

I was on side city of the city’s Magnificent Mile, he on the other.

I wasn’t able to cross over in time to greet him, a great regret.

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