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Dan Shaughnessy

Before the Bucks, it was Bill Russell and the Celtics who took a stand for racial justice

Red Auerbach (right) made Bill Russell part of the first all-Black starting lineup in the NBA and the NBA's first Black head coach.
Red Auerbach (right) made Bill Russell part of the first all-Black starting lineup in the NBA and the NBA's first Black head coach.AP

The latest: Follow along as the NBA and the players meet to determine the status of Thursday’s Celtics-Raptors game

I’m getting “shut up and dribble” emails these days. This is what happens when professional sports figures speak up and act regarding issues of social justice and racial inequality:

“My wife and I decided to watch a Sox game on a Saturday night. We waited until 7:10 to start viewing to avoid any political action. We feel sports should be an escape and fun. Sports is for sports. I do not care what their religious, political, or ethnicity is. Bringing signs into the ball park is wrong. Do whatever they want outside, not inside. I do not need to sit for hours watching millionaire athletes protesting. I will try the NFL on opening day but starting at 1:10 p.m.”

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The Celtics and Toronto Raptors are scheduled to begin their conference semifinal Thursday night in the Orlando bubble, but players from both teams spent part of Tuesday and Wednesday discussing a boycott of Game 1 to bring attention to the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer and subsequent protests and violence in the streets of Kenosha, Wis.

Celtics stars Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart have been out front on racial inequality issues throughout America’s long hot summer. It’s in the best tradition of the Boston Celtics.

“Shut up and dribble” folks likely will never accept any spillover of real-life issues into professional sports, but let me remind fans of the Celtics that issues of race and equality have walked hand-in-hand with the franchise since Red Auerbach came to Causeway Street in 1950.

Red was the first NBA executive to draft a Black player, Duquesne forward Chuck Cooper in 1950. Six years later, Auerbach exploited racism in the St. Louis Hawks front office, trading two white players for the Hawks’ No. 1 draft pick. Red used the pick on Bill Russell. He knew St. Louis had no interest in building its franchise around a Black center.

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Red Auerbach celebrates another title with Bill Russell and John Havlicek.
Red Auerbach celebrates another title with Bill Russell and John Havlicek.HF/Associated Press

In 1961, Russell, K.C. Jones, Satch Sanders, Sam Jones, and Al Butler boycotted a Celtics preseason game against the Hawks in Lexington, Ky., after Sanders and Sam Jones were refused service in the coffee shop of the team’s hotel. Auerbach accepted his players’ protest and drove the five to the airport. A Celtics team of seven players was beaten by the Hawks, 128-103.

Celtics Hall of Famer Frank Ramsey after the game said, “I was 100 percent behind Bill Russell . . . I can’t tell you how sorry I am as a human being, as a friend of the players involved, and as a resident of Kentucky for the embarrassment of this incident.”

In the fall of 1965, months after the retirement of Tommy Heinsohn, Red fielded the first all-Black starting five in NBA history: Russell, Sanders, Jones, Jones, and Willie Naulls. It doesn’t sound like a big deal now. It was then.

When Red retired from the bench in 1966, he did something even more radical, naming Russell his successor as coach. Player-coach Russell was the first African-American head coach in any of our four major professional sports.

A complex and thoughtful man, Russell never played by “shut up and dribble.” He wrote and spoke openly of Boston’s racial climate when he was a player, and the topic is never far from the surface any time he returns. Go to the library and check out Russell’s “Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man,” written with Taylor Branch.

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The Celtics won 11 championships in Russell's 13 seasons, but rarely sold out the Boston Garden. They were never loved the way the Impossible Dream Red Sox and Bobby Orr Bruins were loved. Things didn't change until a decade after Russell retired when Larry Joe Bird arrived from Indiana State.

Larry BIrd and Bill Russell share a laugh.
Larry BIrd and Bill Russell share a laugh.TURNER, Lane GLOBE STAFF

Bird’s arrival triggered a record string of Garden sellouts and groundbreaking popularity for the Celtics franchise. With Bird as the superstar, the Celtics attained a level of popularity never achieved during Russell’s championship reign. This was noticed across basketball America.

The Magic Johnson-Larry Bird Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 1980s was nationally framed in Black and white. The Celtics started Bird, Kevin McHale, and Danny Ainge. The Lakers started Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, and Byron Scott.

The 1985-86 Celtics champions, a team that went 40-1 at home and is sometimes hailed as “best ever” had eight white players and four Black players, highly unusual for any NBA team after the 1960s. The coach of that team took heat at the end of camp when he kept Rick Carlisle over David Thirdkill for the 12th spot at the end of the bench. (Thirdkill came back to the team later, after Sly Williams was released.)

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“I thought it was strange that I was criticized or at least needled by black people for keeping a white player in preference to one of their own,” the coach wrote in his autobiography.

The coach was K.C. Jones, part of the NBA’s first all-Black starting five and one of the Celtics players who boycotted a preseason game over racial discrimination in Kentucky in 1961.

Nobody ever told K.C. Jones to shut up and dribble.


Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.