On the afternoon of Sunday, July 31st, 2022, the world was informed of very tragic news; NBA Hall of Famer and cultural icon Bill Russell had passed away at the age of 88.
Most knew of Russell for his revolutionary play on the basketball court. Considered the best defensive player in NBA history by many, Russell anchored the Celtics defense to historic heights as a result of his rim protection and ability to switch effectively. His ability to shut down offenses at the rim had enhanced value as a result of the lack of a three-point line when he played, which made shots at the rim all the more valuable for opposing offenses.
Bill Russell flying around defense.
Perimeter deflections. Post deflections. Rim protection. Slide over help. A steal. General terror for the Royals. pic.twitter.com/i6kUy2w1Vj
— ProHoopsHistory, PhD (@ProHoopsHistory) October 10, 2021
As a result of his historically great defense paired with high level exploitative passing and average scoring on the offensive end, Russell along with the help of other hall of fame teammates such as Bob Cousy and the late John Havlichek was able to lead the Celtics to 11 NBA Titles during his 13 years playing for the Boston Celtics. Russell also broke barriers by becoming the first black head coach of an NBA team and the only player-coach in league history, winning his final two titles in that role in 1968 and 1969. His dominance and winning on the court led to the later created NBA Finals MVP award to be named after him.
Russell’s success on the court wasn’t just limited to the NBA. As a collegiate athlete he led the San Francisco Dons to back-to-back national championship victories in 1955 and 1956 and as an Olympian he led the United States Men’s Basketball Team to a Gold Medal in 1956.
With all of his successes in the sport of basketball, it would seem as if that would be the defining part of the life of Bill Russell. However, basketball is a significant, yet small chapter in Russell’s life story.
Russell was a multiple time champion on the court, but he was an even bigger champion for society. Bill Russell was a civil rights activist throughout his entire life and fought vigorously to end racial inequalities within the United States.
When Russell was entering his 6th season in the NBA, the Celtics had a preseason game against the St. Louis Hawks that was scheduled in Lexington, Kentucky. Prior to the game, two of Russell’s teammates, Tom “Satch” Sanders and Sam Jones, both of whom were black men, were refused to be served in the cafe in their hotel. As a result of this, they consulted Russell and another Celtics teammate in hall of famer K.C. Jones, who took it up with head coach Red Auerbach, who got them clearance to eat at the hotel’s cafe.
Though they were granted permission to eat there, Russell and his teammates were fed up with the mistreatment they faced around the nation as a result of the color of their skin. They met up in Russell’s hotel room and under his guidance, they collectively decided to refuse the hotel accommodations and they refused to participate in the game. During his meeting with teammates Sam Jones, Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones and Al Butler, Russell said “I don’t think we ought to play.”
They later flew back to Boston and the black players on the Hawks followed in their footsteps in not participating in the game. It was the first time in history that an NBA game had been boycotted as a result of a Civil Rights dispute.
Upon his return to Boston, Russell told the media that “”I [Bill Russell] will not play any place again under those circumstances.”
In 61 I walked out if an exhibition game much like the @nba players did yesterday. I am one of the few people that knows what it felt like to make such an important decision. I am so proud of these young guys. It reminded me of this Pls RT @MSNBC @CNN pic.twitter.com/70VAIFxhtf
— TheBillRussell (@RealBillRussell) August 27, 2020
In addition to fighting for the rights of himself and his teammates, Russell was involved in national civil rights protests. He marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was invited to sit beside him during his “I have a Dream Speech” in Washington, D.C. on August 28th, 1963.
Earlier in 1963, civil rights leader Medgar Evers had been murdered and in the aftermath of his death, Russell offered to help Evers’ brother Charles. The two collaborated in creating a basketball camp in Mississippi to teach the game of basketball to both white and black kids and have them bond with one another. Russell was also known for vocalizing his support for boycotters who were protesting de facto segregation among schools.
In 1967, Muhammed Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all time, refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. As a result of this decision, he faced jail time and had his heavyweight title revoked. Several black athletes, including Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) vocalized their support for Ali during the Cleveland Summit, which was not a widely accepted stance to take in the eyes of many across the United States, who casted Ali as unpatriotic.
In 2011, Bill Russell was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Barack Obama for his contributions to the United States as a human rights activist.
For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right. I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life.
Michelle and I send our love to Bill’s family, and everyone who admired him.
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) July 31, 2022
When taking into account how big of a role Russell played in shaping up society, his basketball career seems to be a bonus on top of what else he had done and the impact he had on the lives of many with his positive actions.
You are successfully significant, and #BecauseOfYou, so many lives have been changed for the better.
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) September 3, 2020
Most people will remember Bill Russell as the winningest player in NBA History. The champion of all champions, winning title upon title upon title. However, he was a champion for society. He was and is a champion for all folks facing discriminiation and prejudice. He will always be a champion for those who are wanting to use their platform to uplift others and create a better world.
Bill Russell was a true champion in life.