Among professional athletes, Bill Russell was a trailblazing activist

It’s easy to remember the shots Bill Russell blocked or the NBA championships he won. In the end, each of them was so numerous that he is considered one of the greatest basketball players in history, and in some corners, the greatest period.

But after nearly nine decades of life, his most significant legacy stems less from the sport he dominated than from his off-court work. From when he was a young man until his death at the age of 88 on Sunday, Russell was a civil rights activist who constantly used his platform as a celebrity athlete to stand up to racism, no matter who he repulsed or how it affected his public popularity. And he was one of the first to do it.

Now athletes in many sports are usually outspoken, no doubt inspired by Russell. The NBA Players Union encourages its members to be passionate about their policies, especially social justice. If Russell had not risked his own livelihood and tolerated the atrocities he committed as a black player in segregated Boston in the 1950s and 1960s, sports activism would look very different today, if it existed at all.

“The drawing was written by Russell,” says Rev. Al Sharpton said in an interview on Sunday. He continued, “It’s fashionable on social media to stand up for your position. He did it when it was out of fashion. He set the trend.”

Spike Lee, director and longtime NBA fan, wrote in a text message, “We’re losing so many greats it makes my head spin.”

Lee said that Russell is “along with Jackie Robinson, a game-changer in sports and activism in the United States of America, and we are all better off thanks to these champions.”

Russell, a native of West Monroe, Louisiana, has been a trailblazer from the moment he stepped onto the NBA court.

“In my rookie year in the championship series, I was the only black player on both teams,” Russell once joked to an audience as he accepted the award in Boston. “And look what we did, we showed them a variety of works.”

Russell walked with the Reverend. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, in the prime of his playing career. (played for the Celtics from 1956 to 1969.). He was invited to sit on stage behind King, but declined. In the same year, Russell offered his public support for the demonstrations against segregation in Boston public schoolsand addressed black students involved in the sit-in.

When civil rights leader Medgar Evers was killed, also in 1963., Russell contacted Evers’ older brother, Charles, in Jackson, Mississippi, and offered to help. The elder Evers suggested that Russell set up an integrated basketball camp in the Deep South, which would have been a significant risk to Russell’s safety. He said yes, and despite death threats, passed through the camp.

Four years later, when boxer Muhammad Ali faced a torrent of criticism 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) gathered in Cleveland and decided to support Ali. It wasn’t a popular position, not that Russell cared.

Russell wrote right after that he was jealous of Ali.

“He has absolute and sincere faith,” Russell wrote for Sports Illustrated. “I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better than anyone I know, equipped to endure the tests that have been prepared for him. What worries me is the rest of us.”

Russell’s activism has influenced generations of athletes. Among them was Spencer Haywood, who played for Russell on the Seattle SuperSonics team coached by Russell. for four seasons. (In 1966, Russell became the first black coach in the NBA.)

Haywood said in an interview on Sunday that he and Russell often dined at a Seattle restaurant called 13 Coins after their car trips, and Russell regaled him with stories about the civil rights movement. During these dinners, Russell praised the young player’s willingness to sue the NBA in 1971 for not allowing players enter the league before four years of age after high school — a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was ultimately decided in Haywood’s favor.

“He taught me because he knew why I was defending my Supreme Court decision,” Haywood said. “And he admired that in me. And I was so overwhelmed by his knowledge.”

Haywood said that Russell was jokingly referred to as “Daddy” Haywood by his teammates due to how close they were. Sometimes Haywood’s late-night conversations with Russell were accompanied by unexpected advice about being active.

“He always told me not to get too carried away because we were in the 70s,” Haywood recalled. “He kind of guided me, saying, ‘Don’t go too far right now, because you’re a player and you need to play the game.’ But you did one stance and you succeeded in that, but don’t go too far.” It’s like he gave me a fence.”

Russell was never afraid to go too far as an activist player. he was not restrained by racist ridicule he became addicted to games or when vandals broke into his house, spray-painted epithets on the wall and left feces on the bed after he moved his family to Reading, Massachusetts. When he tried to move his family to another house nearby, some residents of the predominantly white neighborhood started a petition to keep him out.

“Then I said that I was not afraid of men who come in the dark of the night,” Russell wrote. for Slam magazine in 2020. “The thing is, I never found fear useful.”

He was not always supported by his teammates. In 1961, for example, the Celtics traveled to Lexington, Kentucky for an exhibition game against St. Louis. Louis Hawkes. When the hotel restaurant wasn’t serving black team players, Russell took over kick game. His white teammates were playing the game. Bob Cousy, one of Russell’s white teammates, told writer Gary M. Pomeranz decades later in the 2018 book The Last Pass: Cousy, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End that he was “ashamed” of being took part in the game. President Barack Obama referenced the 1961 story when presenting Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

“For decades, Bill has endured abuse and vandalism, but that has never stopped him from standing up for what is right,” Obama said in a statement Sunday. “I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached and the way he lived his life.”

The activity didn’t stop when Russell got older. In recent years, Russell has been a public supporter Black Lives Matter movement as well as Colin Kaepernickformer NFL quarterback who knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality in 2016.

“Bill Russell was a pioneer,” Ethan Thomas, a former NBA player and political activist, wrote in a text message Sunday. Thomas said that Russell was “an athlete who used his position and platform to push for a bigger cause.” He added that “he was the kind of athlete I wanted to be when I grew up.”

Russell’s influence in leading the 1961 strike could be felt in 2020 when the Milwaukee Bucks withdrew from the playoffs to protest police brutality. Russell on Twitter wrote that he was “touched by all NBA players for standing up for what is right.” In an article for The Players’ Tribune a few weeks later: Russell wrote“Black and brown people Still fight for justice, racists Still occupy the highest positions in the country.

Sharpton pointed to these actions as Russell’s legacy.

“He did it before some of these guys were born,” Sharpton said. “And I think they need to understand that every time a basketball player or an athlete puts on a T-shirt to say something about Trayvon or ‘I am Trayvon’ or ‘Black lives matter’ or whatever, what they want to do is “Get your knee off my neck! “They may not know it, but they are making Bill Russell.”