At center for the Boston Celtics, Bill Russell led the team to 11 world championships, eight of them consecutively, in 13 years. When he was named the team’s player-coach, he became the first Black person in this nation’s history to command a team in any major sport. Russell was a 12-time NBA All-star, a five-time league MVP, and was named NBA Finals MVP six times. That award now bears his name.
Imagine how much higher he might have soared without the weight of racism on his back.
Of course, it’s hard to conceive that Russell could have topped his unparalleled achievements. No other team athlete has come close. That he did so under the constant scourge of white supremacy, especially in Boston where he played his entire career, makes his accomplishments that much more remarkable.
Since Russell’s death Sunday, the word “trailblazer” has been used to describe him as often as “champion.” Russell, who was 88, deserves both distinctions. But being a trailblazer meant not just excelling on the court, but cutting through a thicket of racist slurs and threats because he dared to be outspoken and Black.
It meant that while helping his team raise the banners that elevated Boston from just another hard-luck sports town to a city of champions, Russell played for many white fans who wanted nothing more than for him to “shut up and dribble.”
In her 1987 New York Times essay “Growing Up with Privilege and Prejudice,” Karen Russell recalled how often her family’s home in Reading was vandalized. Garbage cans would be toppled whenever the family traveled during a Celtics road trip. Once they returned from a short vacation to find their house ransacked. Walls were spray painted with racial epithets. Many of Russell’s trophies were smashed. Someone even defecated in a bed.
“I played for the Celtics, period. I did not play for Boston.” Karen Russell recalled her father saying. “I was able to separate the Celtics institution from the city and the fans.”
Now some rushing to herald Russell’s greatness off the court did nothing decades ago to condemn what he was forced to endure or to challenge the racism inflicted on Black people.
Russell certainly wasn’t unfamiliar with racism. He was born in Louisiana, deep in the Jim Crow South where codified segregation was enforced with bullets and nooses. He knew that white supremacy didn’t stop at the Mason-Dixon Line. Russell fought for this nation in general and Black people in particular with the same grace and grit he gave to the Celtics for 13 years.
Along with Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Russell was part of a defining generation of Black athlete-activists who recognized that playing sports did not exempt them from working to right this nation’s entrenched wrongs. In 1961, Russell boycotted an exhibition game in Lexington, Ky., after two Black teammates, Sam Jones and Satch Sanders, were denied service in a hotel café. In protest, all three refused to play and returned home. Their white teammates did not.
“Negroes are in a fight for their rights — a fight for survival in a changing world,” Russell told the media when he arrived back in Boston. “I am with these Negroes.”
If many white fans looked down on Russell in his playing days, Black fans nationwide never stopped looking up to him. In 2018 Donald Trump rescinded an invitation to the Philadelphia Eagles after several players declined to attend a White House ceremony for their Super Bowl win. For months, the then-president had been disparaging Black athletes for kneeling during the national anthem in a silent protest against police violence and racial inequalities.
In support of those athletes, Russell tweeted a photo of himself staring straight into the camera and down on one knee. For Russell, silence in the face of injustice was never an option.
#Trump you projected your narrative that #TakingAKnee is disrespectful & #UnAmerican it was never about that! You are divisive & a coward. It takes true courage 2 stand 4 what is right & risk your life in the midst of a #pandemic #Proud2kneel #BlackLivesMatter @MSNBC @BostonGlobe https://t.co/nhNITHSrxo pic.twitter.com/h0PuUYVFwu— TheBillRussell (@RealBillRussell) June 7, 2020
Boston has no shortage of sports legends. But Tom Brady and Larry Bird didn’t have to blaze any trails away from their respective fields of play. They could concentrate all of their energies on their sport. Russell never had — nor did he want — that luxury.
When FiveThirtyEight made its case this year for Brady as “the GOATiest” — the Greatest of All Time — “of all the GOATS,” Russell’s name never came up as a contender. In a 2021 poll by BetOnline.ag, 20 states chose Brady as the “GOAT” Michael Jordan and LeBron James each garnered 11 states, while Serena Williams got four. Not a single one, including Massachusetts, mentioned Russell.
Considered purely in terms of championship hardware, no team athlete can touch Russell. But his greatness cannot be measured solely in rings or banners. His impact on the greater society was immeasurable. Russell stood taller than his nearly 6-foot-10-inch frame and his long shadow will forever touch every athlete who uses their power and platform to speak out against injustice.
If being a trailblazer was a burden, Russell never showed it. Instead, he embraced that role all of his life. He was always honored to have spent his career in Celtics green. And Russell was no less proud that he never allowed it to veil his unapologetic Blackness.