In a 1987 essay, the daughter of Celtics legend Bill Russell wrote that her father had faced “the worst kind of unbridled bigotry” from Boston fans and sportswriters, and detailed racist attacks the Russell family was subjected to while living in Massachusetts. Now, in the wake of Russell’s death Sunday, the piece is garnering renewed attention.
At the time Karen Russell’s piece was published in The New York Times, she had just graduated from Harvard Law School. Bill Russell was already in the Hall of Fame. He had captained a gold-medal winning Olympic team, and won 11 NBA titles with the Celtics in 13 years. His time with the Celtics included three years as a player-coach, when he was the first Black head coach in a major American sports league.
Bill Russell died Sunday at the age of 88, with his wife, Jeannine, by his side, according to an announcement from his family, who didn’t say where he died or the cause of death.
In the essay titled “Growing Up with Privilege and Prejudice,” which resurfaced on Twitter Sunday, Karen Russell described how her father sought to separate his feelings about playing basketball for the Celtics and playing for the city of Boston. She detailed the racist vandalism the Russell family’s Reading home faced once when they were out of town and listed the racist abuse Bill Russell endured from fans.
What was Bill Russell's life like while he was racking up 11 rings? His daughter writes: pic.twitter.com/ETKKvEbDfX— austin walker (@austin_walker) July 31, 2022
Karen Russell wrote in the piece that it was “ironic” that she returned to Boston for her law degree, because her father once described the city as “the most racist in America.”
Karen Russell said she asked her father if it was difficult for him to send her to school in Boston. She was surprised by his response, she wrote.
“I played for the Celtics, period,” Bill Russell told Karen, she wrote. “I did not play for Boston. I was able to separate the Celtics institution from the city and the fans. When I sent you to Harvard, I expected you to be able to do the same.
“I wanted you to have the best possible education and to be able to make the best contacts,” Bill Russell continued. “I knew you’d encounter racism and sexism, and maybe, in some ways, that’s a good thing. If you were too sheltered, I’m afraid you’d be too naïve. If you were too sheltered, you might not be motivated to help others who do not have your advantages.”
Russell was active in the civil rights movement at the height of his playing career, attending the 1963 March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking out against segregation in Boston public schools, and using his position as a professional athlete to fight injustice inside and outside of the sports world. His outspoken criticism of racism was not always welcome in Boston. In his 1979 memoir, “Second Wind,” Russell described Boston as “a flea market of racism.”
Karen Russell wrote in her essay that after living in Massachusetts as a child, moving to a Seattle suburb, then attending Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., for college, she was “afraid” to return to the Boston area to pursue a law degree.
Her first memory of the area is when she was about 3 or 4 years old and spent a day in Marblehead with one of her parents’ friends, who is white. As they were walking along the water, a white man called her a racist slur and made other racist remarks.
Karen Russell also described living in a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood in Reading and being the only Black family in the community.
“It was weird to be the only black kid at school, aside from my two older brothers,” she wrote. “I knew we were different from the other children.”
Karen Russell wrote that one night, the family returned from a three-day weekend to find their home in “shambles” after a break-in, with a racist slur spray painted on the walls of the house.
“The burglars had poured beer on the pool table and ripped up the felt,” Karen wrote. “They had broken into my father’s trophy case and smashed most of the trophies. I was petrified and shocked at the mess; everyone was very upset. The police came, and after a while, they left. It was then that my parents pulled pack their bedcovers to discover that the burglars had defecated in their bed.”
Every time the Celtics were on the road for away games, “vandals would come and tip over our garbage cans,” Karen Russell wrote, prompting Bill Russell to complain to police.
“The police told him that raccoons were responsible, so he asked where he could apply for a gun permit. The raccoons never came back,” Karen wrote.
Karen Russell said that the family was really scared only one time. Bill Russell wrote a piece in The Saturday Evening Post about racism in professional basketball. He began to be called “Felton X,” she wrote, and the Russell family began to receive threatening letters. They notified the FBI.
“What I find most telling about this episode is that years later, after Congress had passed the Freedom of Information Act, my father requested his F.B.I. file and found that he was repeatedly referred to therein as ‘an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children,’” Karen Russell wrote.
Karen Russell elaborated on Bill Russell’s decision to refuse autographs, writing that Bill Russell thought they were “impersonal,” and he would have preferred to “shake a person’s hand or look that person in the eye and say, ‘Pleased to meet you.’”
“His attitude has provoked racist responses, and these have tended to obscure the very basic issue of the right to privacy,” Karen Russell wrote.
At the end of the piece, a wide-ranging reflection on the racism she faced and witnessed throughout her life, Karen Russell expressed concern over potential fallout she might face as a result of the essay, saying she ran the risk of “being depersonalized, even dehumanized, by others.”
“Daddy told me that he never listened to the boos because he never listened to the cheers,” Karen Russell wrote. “He did it for himself. I guess I have to, too.”
Amanda Kaufman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1.