FOXBOROUGH — Patriots captains Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty never met Bill Russell, but they hold plenty of appreciation for all that the Celtics legend accomplished in his life.
“It’s really hard to put into words what a man like Bill Russell has meant to this city, has meant to professional sports, has meant to Black athletes,” Slater said Monday morning. “When I think of Bill Russell, I don’t necessarily think of the championships or the Celtics and the winning, which is a legacy that speaks for itself, I think of what he did for Black athletes. I’m a beneficiary of the actions of men and women like Bill Russell, who were willing to step out on a limb and advocate for Black athletes and Black Americans and really push for change and push for equality.”
Russell, who died Sunday at the age of 88, won 11 NBA championships as a player and two as the league’s first Black coach. He joined the Celtics in 1956, as the civil rights movement began, and played a monumental role in advancing Black athletes.
For Slater and McCourty, Russell’s commitment to equality and refusal to accept second-class treatment has served as an inspiration.
Asked what comes to mind when he reflects on Russell’s legacy, McCourty pointed to “his willingness and vulnerability to be very open about what he went through and wanting change.”
“A day where he’s gone, I think it’s great to be able to talk about him,” McCourty continued. “Talk about his sacrifice, talk about what he meant obviously to basketball but to all sports — to go out there and stand up for what you believe in. To go through some terrible things but to turn around and openly say, ‘Hey, this is wrong. Let’s change this.’”
Slater echoed his teammate’s thoughts and championed Russell’s “unbelievable” courage.
“I can’t imagine having to have gone through some of the things that he had to go through, especially early on in his life and in his career,” he said. “The reality is, he wasn’t even seen as a full citizen of this country when he started his career and certainly when he started his life. Really think about that. A couple generations removed from Black Americans really being seen as less than American. When I think about Bill Russell, I celebrate that part of his legacy more than anything else.”
Slater also thinks of his father, Jackie, when he thinks of Russell. Jackie, now 68, grew up in Jackson, Miss., and didn’t attend an integrated school until 10th grade. He went on to play football at Jackson State, a historically black university, before getting drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the third round in 1976.
Moving to LA had his father “scared to death,” Slater said, because he didn’t know how he was going to be treated. The pair has since talked about Russell’s impact in breaking down barriers and moving the needle for Black athletes.
“He hadn’t had white teammates since high school — and that experience was not a good one, I can assure you that,” Slater said. “To see that type of change in his lifetime, I think, has really blown him away. He never expected to see it, especially with the way that he was brought up. He’ll be the first to tell you that he appreciates men like Bill Russell more than any of us.”
Since getting drafted by the Patriots over a decade ago, Slater and McCourty have become two of the team’s most prominent and active social justice advocates. Players like Russell instilled a responsibility for them to pay it forward, they said.
“As athletes, we talk about not being content with whatever you’ve accomplished or done,” McCourty said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things that we have to do as people — not look back on what you’ve done, but just try to keep doing more.”