NBA superstar Bill Russell was a legend off the court as a racial rights crusader.


Getty Images/Alex Wong

switch to caption Getty Images/Alex Wong

Getty Images/Alex Wong Bill Russell, who passed away at the age of 88, was more than just an elite basketball player. Russell worked tirelessly to end racial injustice both inside and outside of the world of professional athletics.

Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House in February 2011. He discussed Russell’s record of 11 NBA titles, the most of any player in history, with the audience. Playing for the Boston Celtics, the players won every championship.

The president, however, was more impressed by Russell’s actions outside of sports, including his support of Muhammad Ali, his marching with Martin Luther King Jr., and his decision to boycott a game in Kentucky after his Black teammates were turned away from a coffee shop.

In 2011, Obama stated, “He endured taunts and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on developing the teammates he loved into better players, and he made it possible for the success of so many who would follow.” And I hope that someday, kids in Boston will pass by a statue honoring both Bill Russell the man and Bill Russell the athlete.

BOYCOTTING SPORTS’ FIRST GAME OVER CIVIL RIGHTS The Boston Celtics played a preseason exhibition game at Lexington, Kentucky, in October 1961. Sam Jones and Tom Sanders, two Black players for Boston, wanted to order something to eat from the hotel cafe before the game but were turned away.

Sam Jones: A Biography by Mark C. Bodanza claims that Jones and Sanders left feeling humiliated and enraged. On their way back to their hotel rooms, the two ran into Russell and K.C. Jones and related what had happened in the cafe.

Red Auerbach, the Celtics coach, was informed by the four guys and called the hotel management to inform them of the occurrence. The players were eventually given permission to eat at the hotel, but they had little interest in going there and instead decided to take a flight home.

According to the Basketball Network , it was the first time a game has been boycotted due to a civil rights demonstration. A largely white throng that supported their choice greeted the players as they returned to Boston.

According to Bodanza, Russell told reporters the following day: “If we don’t express our opposition to this type of treatment, the status quo will continue. We ought to be treated fairly because we have the same rights and benefits as everyone else. I wish this mistreatment would never occur again. But if it does, we won’t think twice about repeating the same activity.”

Russell brought up the incident as he praised another NBA team for coming out nearly 60 years later. After a Black man was shot by police in Wisconsin in August 2020, players on the Milwaukee Bucks made the decision to sit out of their team’s playoff game versus Orlando.

Russell wrote, “Like the NBA players did yesterday, I left an exhibition game in 1961.” I am one of the few individuals who has experienced making a decision of this magnitude.

Many of Russell’s most noteworthy deeds occurred in the 1960s. Russell witnessed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s renowned “I Have a Dream” speech, at the 1963 March on Washington.

In the same year, Russell spoke to students in support organized a one-day Black student boycott of Boston’s public schools to express opposition to segregation. He participated in community affairs in Boston, and in 1966, he helped organize the graduation ceremony speaking to graduates at a high school with a large Black student body.

In order to collaborate with Medgar Evers’ brother to open an integrated basketball camp , Russell went to Mississippi after Evers was assassinated in 1963.

Russell had a meeting in Cleveland with Muhammad Ali in 1967 when the boxing legend refused to take part in the American war in Vietnam. Instead of condemning Ali’s views on civil rights and religious freedom, Russell encouraged him to choose incarceration.

He persisted in speaking up later in life.
In 2017, Obama shared a photo of himself kneeling in support of NFL protesters while wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Russell wrote, “Proud to stoop and to rise up against social injustice.”

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