Bill Russell and Red Auerbach came to an agreement.
Auerbach, a longtime Boston Celtics coach, admitted to Russell that he plans to retire from coaching. Russell and Auerbach together created a dynasty where Russell dominated center and Auerbach sealed his championship victories with trails of celebratory cigar smoke.
Each of them had to write down their top five coaches who would succeed Auerbach and consider any name that made it to both lists.
They didn’t find a match. Auerbach had already approached Russell about taking on the job and continuing as a player, but Russell, who had witnessed Auerbach in training, quickly rebuffed him.
Now that the lists had crossed over with candidates, Russell reconsidered his position and decided that no one but Auerbach could coach Bill Russell the way Bill Russell could.
“When Red and I started discussing how I would become a coach, we didn’t need to talk about some things,” Russell wrote in his book about his friendship with Auerbach, “Red and I: my coach, my friend for life.” in 2009. “For example, when I was finally named publicly, I didn’t know that I had just become the first African-American coach in the history of major league sports.”
This was in 1966, and the distinction didn’t occur to him until he was told by the Boston media. “When I took this job, a reporter wrote seven articles about why I shouldn’t coach the Celtics,” Russell wrote.
Russell, who died Sunday at age 88, won two championships as head coach of the Celtics, his 10th and 11th championship rings. He also coached the Seattle SuperSonics and Sacramento Kings and inspired a generation of black players to try their hand at coaching. The skepticism that accompanied his hiring in Boston may not be as important now, but it still influences whether black coaches are hired in the NBA today.
Bernie Bickerstaff, who is black, watched Russell become head coach of the Celtics just as he was about to begin coaching. He started out as an assistant at the University of San Diego with Phil Woolpert, who coached Russell at the University of San Francisco.
“Nothing like that was thought at the time,” said Bickerstaff, who became a SuperSonics coach in 1985. it seemed far-fetched.”
Russell, the coach, imitated Russell the player. He was a longtime civil rights activist who coached the Celtics at the time of the Reverend’s murder. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. “Many Bostonians were annoyed by this,” Russell wrote in his 2009 book. “At that time, Boston was a completely segregated city, and I am strongly against segregation.”
He demanded respect and competed fiercely in an era when he had no assistant coaches. He played and coached the Celtics for three seasons before ending the NBA’s most successful and longest running championship.
“That in itself speaks volumes about who he was as a human being and humanitarian if you understand the culture of this country, especially in some places,” said Jim Climons, a black man who became the coach of the Dallas Mavericks in 1996.
Al Attles and Lenny Wilkens followed Russell as the next black NBA head coaches. They, like Russell, lead teams to the championship. It took the rest of the professional sports world some time to catch up. Frank Robinson, Russell’s former high school basketball teammate, became Cleveland’s first black Major League Baseball manager in 1975. Art Shell became the first black NFL head coach in the modern era for the Oakland Raiders in 1989.
“Bill Russell was an inspiration, period, with coaching,” Bickerstaff said. “But as a person, in times when it was unpopular to be someone with our build, he would stand up and represent. He had no fear. He was sincere. He was successful. He was a leader on and off the court.”
Russell became the fifth person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach when he received coaching status last year.
By then, what seemed far-fetched when Bickerstaff began coaching seemed to be commonplace. Half of 30 NBA coaches will be black in 2022-23, including JB Bickerstaff, Bernie’s son and Cleveland Cavaliers coach.
But back in 2020, only four black coaches roamed the NBA fields. “Frankly, there are certain natural ebb and flow in the hiring and firing of coaches, but right now the numbers are far too few,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said ahead of the 2020 Finals.
Other sports leagues continued to laugh. Nearly two decades after Russell won his first championship as a coach, Al Campanis, an executive with the Los Angeles Dodgers, expressed doubts about the ability of blacks to fill leadership positions.
“I don’t think it’s prejudice,” Campanis told ABC’s Nightline in 1987. manager.”
MLB recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, but only two of his current managers – Houston’s Dusty Baker and Dodgers’ Dave Roberts – are black.
In the NFL, Brian Flores, a former coach for the Miami Dolphins, recently sued the league over discriminatory hiring practices. Flores is the son of immigrants from Honduras. The NFL created a diversity advisory committee and mandated that each team hire a minority offensive coach following the Flores lawsuit.
Russell didn’t often talk about being the first black coach in major league sports. But after his hiring, he felt the stress that awaited him as “the first black coach,” as he wrote in his book.
The hope that his relationship with Auerbach would grow from a superficial connection between coach and player to a deeper friendship comforted him.
“So I started looking forward to it,” he wrote.
Russell left the Celtics in 1969 but managed the Supersonics from 1973 to 1977. He led Seattle to the franchise’s first playoffs, but the success he had in Boston eluded him.
Russell coached a final season with the Sacramento Kings in 1987–88 before being fired and moving to the front office after starting 17–41.
“With so many truly great players, it was hard for him to understand why the average players didn’t have the drive, focus and drive to win that he did,” said Jerry Reynolds, Russell’s assistant at the Kings. interview on Sunday. “It’s just that not many people are connected to such wires. That’s why they are great. In a way, it was difficult for him to understand. Most of the guys wanted to win. They didn’t have to win every game like he did.”
All the while, Russell remained true to who he was during training.
Bickerstaff recalled Russell offering a set of golf clubs to one of Woolpert’s sons instead of giving him an autograph, an act that Russell was known to stubbornly refuse throughout his career.
Cleemons said Booster introduced his high school team to Russell shortly after she won the Ohio State Championship. Russell barely looked up from his soup. He hated being distracted from eating.
Climons understood the mindset after reading Russell’s autobiography.
Before becoming a basketball player, before becoming a coach, Russell wanted to be seen as a person.
“He looked a bit like Muhammad Ali,” Reynolds said. “He’s always been who he was. Society and people have changed. Everything has changed to be more in line with what it should have been all along.”