Bill Russell’s Legacy of NBA Championships and Intellectual Equal Rights

On May 1, 1968, Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to another NBA championshipdefeating rival Los Angeles Lakers.

But this time, Russell was more than just a star center, a tenacious guard, the backbone of pro basketball’s most distinguished dynasty.

He was too trainer.

During the locker room celebration, reporters marveled at the legacy of Russell’s accomplishments. What else could he achieve?

He dodged the question.

“Honestly, I haven’t tried to prove anything to anyone for a long time,” he said.

He was silent for a second.

“I know who I am.”

Undisputed Champion

Russell, who died July 31, 2022won record in basketball that is unparalleled.

From 1954 to 1956, he managed the University of San Francisco as a player and won two consecutive NCAA championships and record streak of 55 wins.

AT 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, he dominated the court and led the United States to the gold medal. And in his 13-year pro career with the Boston Celtics, Russell won an astounding 11 NBA titles – the last two, in 1968 and 1969, as a player-coach.

In my biography of Russell:King of the CourtI argued that he led the “basketball revolution”.

During his athletic reign, the sport evolved from a white man’s game with a petty “bush league” reputation to a dynamic, modern, nationally televised sport associated with black culture.

In addition, Russell was the NBA’s biggest barrier-breaker: its first black superstar, its first black champion, its first black coach.

However, the most charming was Russell himself.

As his proud comment after the 1968 title suggests, he made an intellectual and personal journey during his career. He sought to find value in basketball among civil rights movement race riot.

He came out of this crucible not only as a stronger person, but also as one of the most influential figures at the intersection of sports and politics.

The reluctant sports hero

When fans gathered for autographs at Madison Square Garden in December 1962, Russell asked a pointed question.

“What does all of this mean?” he asked. “It’s without depth. It’s a very superficial thing.”

A few weeks later, he admitted: “I feel like playing basketball, I’m just marking time. I don’t feel it can be everything for a man. I didn’t achieve anything, really. What is my contribution that I can really be proud of?

Russell had won three MVP awards and five NBA titles to that point. He became a hero in the media rivalry with a taller and stronger scoring machine, Will Chamberlain.

The Celtics have earned praise for their collaborative spirit while serving as a sports leader. the greatest example of racial integration In action.

Yet Russell chafed at every reminder that he was still a second-class citizen.

Have refused to live apart on road trips. During the 1961 pre-season tour, when a hotel coffee shop in Lexington, Kentucky denied service to two teammates, Russell boycotted the exhibition game, and black players on both teams followed suit.

After the 1962 season, while returning to his native Louisiana, he and his two young sons had to spend one night in their car because no hotel could accommodate black people.

If this happened to the best basketball player in the world, what difference would basketball make?

militant activism

In response, Russell created an image that one teammate called “royal arrogance”.

The majority of black athletes have received widespread public recognition by behaving modestly and graciously.

On the contrary, Russell began to refuse to sign autographs. The ritual made him feel like a commodity, not a person with a real personality and ideas of his own. He chose to express his political views with fearless honesty.

During the 1963-64 season, in Sports Illustrated and Saturday Evening Post profiles, Russell asked questions: philosophy of non-violence supported by Martin Luther King Jr. and he defended the ideas Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.

“We must make the white population uncomfortable and uncomfortable,” he insisted, “because that is the only way to get their attention.”

With the NAACP banner behind them, two blacks sit at a table while a third speaks into a microphone.
Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell (center) appears at a NAACP meeting in Boston. Hal Sweeney/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In his 1966 memoirs,Go to gloryRussell extolled the ideals of American democracy but went on to describe its shortcomings in practice.

He recalled such humiliations as teenage police brutality in Oakland, racist fans who called him insults like “baboon”, and the bigotry of the Boston press that praised white stars like Bob Cousy at Russell’s expense.

He called for the black freedom movement to become more aggressive, to express black unity and anger.

“This is something you want to shout about,” he wrote. “I MUST HAVE A MALE HUMANITY.”

Such bellicose statements provoked a backlash not only from conservatives who resented him, but also from liberals who felt betrayed.

Russell stands firm.

He went through his period of personal crisis and honed the tools to express his true humanity, whatever the consequences.

More than sports

In the late 1960s, Russell’s career entered its most unusual and underestimated phase.

When he replaced Red Auerbach as coach, the aging Boston roster no longer dominated the NBA, and the Celtics lost in the 1967 playoffs, raising doubts about Russell’s viability as a player-coach.

Then, incredibly, he led the Celtics to two more titles.

By the time he retired in 1969, the Boston press could no longer doubt his importance.

“The history of the Celtics,” wrote Jerry Nason of the Boston Globe, “is more than a sports page.”

A black man wearing a dark blue suit is tying a ribbon around the neck of another black man.
US President Barack Obama presents Bill Russell with the 2010 Medal of Freedom. Chip Somodeville/Getty Images

At the same time, he stood as a beacon for his fellow black athletes. When Muhammad Ali was expelled from professional boxing for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, Russell called him a man of principle.

When black jocks threatened boycott the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Russell supported their cause.

For a generation, Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics have demonstrated great opportunities for racial integration. But Russell demanded that the public perceive the black athlete as something more than just a symbol.

“We treat each other like men,” he said after the Celtics’ final triumph in 1969. “We judge a guy by his character.”

If he determined his place in the world, Russell demanded the same from the public.

Aram GudsuzyanBiso Family History Professor, University of Memphis

This article has been reprinted from Talk under a Creative Commons license. Read original article.