2022 Bostonian of the year
Bill Russell’s legacy of lonely courage in the fight against hate
“I think what’s remarkable about Russell was the unwillingness to be just like everybody else,” says sportswriter and author Howard Bryant.
One of the last indelible images of the historic life of Bill Russell depicted him taking a knee.
Russell was demonstrating his solidarity with the blackballed NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, one maverick standing — well, kneeling — with another.
“Proud to take a knee, and to stand tall against social injustice,” Russell, then 83, tweeted in September 2017.
Jarring as it may have been to find Bill Russell on Twitter, that act of solidarity was very much in character. Because for all his achievements on the court — as the greatest winner in the history of American sports — Russell was almost equally revered for his commitment to social justice.
Russell, of course, played in an era of enormous social upheaval. And he was here for it.
He was at the March on Washington in 1963. He ran the first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi that same year, following the murder of civil rights legend Medgar Evers. He was skeptical of the Vietnam War. He led a group of Black athletes to publicly support Muhammad Ali in 1967, after Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to be inducted into the Army.
Playing in an era when athletes — especially Black athletes — were under public pressure to shut up and dribble, Russell was never interested in that. He was not so much an activist as a truth-teller: a man who refused to bend to convention, to deny the deep racism he faced in Boston and elsewhere, to allow others the comfort of looking away.
“I think what’s remarkable about Russell was the unwillingness to be just like everybody else,” says sportswriter and author Howard Bryant. “The unwillingness to be just like, ‘This is how it is, maybe tomorrow will be better.’ Which is the promise that this country has always given Black people — wait for a better day. And he said ‘No, I’m not willing to do that.’”
Those who knew Russell trace his passion for social justice to his father, who fled Jim Crow Louisiana for California when Russell was an adolescent. Charles Russell wasn’t willing to sacrifice who he was just to survive, and that was a quality his son Bill inherited in a huge way.
Throughout his life, Russell was happy to embrace being an outsider. That was one of the qualities that made him comfortable with fearlessly and unapologetically acting on his political beliefs.
“I am a misfit — and a triple threat at that,” he wrote in his memoir (written with Taylor Branch) Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man. “Not only am I tall enough to make a lot of people uncomfortable, but I am also Black and infamous as an athlete. No wonder I have my quirks.”
To say he didn’t have it easy as a Black athlete in Boston in the ‘60s would be putting it mildly. He wasn’t the Celtics’ first Black player, but he was the city’s first star athlete, and with that came a considerable amount of abuse.
If Russell was ambivalent at best about Boston back then — and he was — he was loyal to the core to the Celtics. “He said many times that he didn’t play for Boston, he played for the Celtics,” Branch recalls with a rueful chuckle.
But the Celtics could have been better at loving him back. In later years, some of Russell’s former teammates, now old men, would express deep remorse that they hadn’t been more sensitive to his experiences in Boston. Chief among them has been legendary point guard Bob Cousy, the undisputed leader of the team until his retirement in 1963, midway through Russell’s career.
Decades into his retirement, Russell was still forcing his old teammates to confront his humanity — and their own. “This one person made everybody think about things in a way that they had tried to avoid,” Bryant says. “His shadow, and his presence, were so great that you couldn’t lie to the truth anymore.”
For generations of those who came behind him — not just athletes, by the way — Russell left a towering example of refusing to sacrifice his integrity, ever, for personal gain. His legacy isn’t just hanging from the rafters at TD Garden, or in his No. 6, now retired NBA-wide. It’s in something much more fundamental, in the way he forced those around him to confront him, and themselves. Off the court, as much as on the hardwood, Russell led by example.
“At the end of the day, when you talk about his legacy, you’re not even talking about him any more — you’re talking about the trail he left,” Bryant says. “And that trail allowed other people to do what they would do, later on. Including me. Because he left something for you.”
Of course Russell supported Colin Kaepernick, whose stand against the NFL mirrored Russell’s fights against the status quo. That was the kind of fight Russell lived for.
As Taylor Branch puts it: “Russell admired lonely courage.”
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.