UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame knew it had some making up to do to Bill Russell.
The greatest Celtic of all-time and one of the most impactful professional athletes ever did not attend his 1975 induction as a means of protest because he did not believe he should have been the first Black player inducted.
A sport with a rich history of African American contribution, even prior to the forming of the NBA in 1950, did not have one Black face in the Hall before Russell. That angered him.
The Hall of Fame eventually formed the Early African American Pioneer category in 2011, giving those who preceded Russell a chance to reach basketball immortality. Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame president John Doleva told the Globe that Russell never truly forgave the Hall for its omission, but he did receive his Hall of Fame ring in 2019 and made one of his final public appearances last September in Springfield.
Russell was part of the 2021 Naismith Class as a coach, and the Hall wanted him to attend, knowing he was in failing health and wanting to present him with his jacket and ring in person. But the process wasn’t easy.
Russell, who died July 31 at age 88, was reluctant to travel on a commercial flight because of COVID-19 concerns, so a charter was arranged.
“We thought it was very important that he have the opportunity to be here,” Doleva said. “Looking back, the organization feels pretty good that we had a reunion for Bill Russell. In that regard, it was a very positive thing to do. The issue was getting him here to be able to experience and share with so many people that wanted to be with him.”
There have been 13 inductees from the Early African American era, including three more Saturday: Wyatt Boswell, Inman Jackson, and Albert Pullins. The committee will continue the arduous research on teams including the Harlem/New York Rens and Harlem Globetrotters, filled with players who were not allowed to play on many major college and mainstream professional teams.
Russell knew he was part of the game’s history, but was offended for those pioneers. Men such as Chuck Cooper (2019) — the first Black Celtics player — Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (2015), and Earl Lloyd (2003), who have all since been inducted.
“He [protested] in 1975, when I’m not sure at that point the board of the Hall of Fame [understood],” Doleva said. “It took some time and certainly everything’s changed at the Basketball Hall of Fame. With the advent of the Early African American committee, he did warm up. I don’t think he was ever going to embrace the Hall of Fame or love the Hall of Fame, but he was intrigued and pleased that we founded this group and really recognized those people that he was thinking about.
“He knew the skill level of individuals that were playing and not allowed to play professionally in the NBA. He knew that they could not showcase their talents to the level they should have had the opportunity to, or make the money they could have made. He was at the front end of all of that. It was one of those turning points in sports that he felt was unfair.”
Hall of Fame chairman Jerry Colangelo lauded Russell at Friday’s Class of 2022 press conference, and the Hall will pay tribute to Russell prior to Saturday’s induction, with greats Jerry West and Alonzo Mourning serving as hosts.
“Getting him back last year was a big challenge, because of his health in particular,” Colangelo said. “We were so happy that he could make it and experience what he did, but he was failing [health wise]. And that’s one of the things over the years, it’s kind of heartbreaking when some people who are being inducted are feeble or could hardly get up to the stage. And some don’t make it. We want them to enjoy the moments. This is it. This is the pinnacle for people who have played the game.”
While all the Early African American Pioneer members have been inducted posthumously, Doleva said there remains a thrill in informing the families that their loved one is finally being acknowledged. (In some situations, sadly, Doleva said he was unable to find direct descendants.)
“The story is what’s important, so the millions and tens of millions of basketball fans that have a chance to read the story and understand the history of the game,” Doleva said. “I like to say the Hall of Famer lives forever in the Hall of Fame, so if someone is forgotten and doesn’t have any descendants, they have fans and people who want to learn about the game in the Hall of Fame. In that sense, they have an extended family.”
And before most people even knew the names of these legends, Russell stood tall and represented them.